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Motorsports

No dash, just trash

Fans at Talladega throw debris on the track as the Aaron's 499 finishes under caution with Jeff Gordon beating fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr.

By BRANT JAMES
Published April 26, 2004

TALLADEGA, Ala. - The beer cans and plastic cups that rained down looked like rose petals and felt like victory to Jeff Gordon, not the true scene that marred the end of a tremendous Nextel Cup race on Sunday.

Upset that Gordon had taken the white flag under caution, leading at the expense of the most popular driver in NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt Jr., after a controversial NASCAR scoring decision, scores of the 155,000 fans within heaving distance of the catch fence at Talladega Superspeedway pelted the track and Gordon's No.24 Chevrolet with liquid anarchy.

It continued through the final lap, forcing Gordon to swerve to avoid debris that could puncture a tire or clog a grill and give the angry masses what they really wanted - Earnhardt's fifth win on a track his family has dominated.

Gordon and crew chief Robbie Loomis joked about the scene on the last revolution of the 2.66-mile gantlet, a certain tinge of nervousness underscoring their conversation. But Earnhardt benefited from controversial scoring decisions at Talladega before. His pass under the yellow boundary line last spring was ruled incidental and a fourth straight win at Talladega upheld.

But NASCAR officials held firm - with video replays supporting them - that Gordon was half a car length ahead of Earnhardt when caution was signaled after Brian Vickers' spinout between Turns 3 and 4 with four laps left.

The running order was frozen at the moment of caution and Gordon's first victory of the season and 65th career was sealed. He started enjoying the moment. Gordon slowed his car past the finish line; it absorbed a few extra hits before he wheeled off to cut celebratory doughnuts in the infield grass.

"I took a lot of satisfaction out of a lot of things at that moment and that was one of them," said Gordon, who lost a chance at a win April 18 at Martinsville when his car was damaged by a 4-inch deep pothole. "It's not the same if they stand up and turn around and leave when it's over. You want some stuff and you want some action. I don't mind some controversy either."

Kevin Harvick was third, followed by Jimmie Johnson and Robby Gordon as Chevrolets claimed the top five slots.

The win was Gordon's seventh on restrictor-plate tracks - the most of any active driver. Earnhardt has six and could have moved into second place alone on Talladega's all-time list. Dale Earnhardt Sr. leads with 10.

Gordon was fifth at a restart on Lap 179, sandwiched between Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammates Earnhardt in front and Michael Waltrip behind. But a strong aerodynamic push from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson vaulted Gordon into the lead along the high line on Lap183. Earnhardt was making a move on Gordon in Turn 4 on Lap184 when Vickers lost control. Earnhardt passed Gordon; initially NASCAR ruled Earnhardt the leader then called "(No.) 24, then 8" over its official radio channel.

"When (Vickers) wrecked, I knew I was ahead of (Earnhardt) but I didn't know where I was when the caution came out," Gordon said. "I was waiting for them to drop the green and us go racing for one lap. With the luck we've had lately I wasn't going to get excited until we crossed the finish line."

Earnhardt claimed he was half a length ahead when he saw the caution lights flash.

Debris aside, the end was anticlimactic in an eventful race that had 54 lead changes among 23 drivers.

Earnhardt quipped that having a controversial call go against him might finally dispel a belief among his detractors that NASCAR gives him preferential treatment.

"As bad as it is not getting the trophy and winning the race, I'm really glad I didn't win, so it will shut up a lot of people," Earnhardt said. "Now my fans can finally have their chance to voice their opinion on how c----- that decision was.

" ... (Last spring) I was racing below the yellow line and they called it fair, and this one didn't go my way."

Though gracious in defeat, the Budweiser-sponsored Earnhardt chose not to admonish fans for their behavior, saying he "can't speculate if every one of those beer cans had a little message on it.

"When people have been having a good time a lot of the time they do things you shouldn't do," he said. "You shouldn't do it (but) in a way I kind of look at it as a pure form of expression, which is really rare in sports."

Others disagreed.

"Have a little respect for what we do," rookie Brendan Gaughan said. "Sorry, Junior can't win 'em all."

Better duck, Brendan.

[Last modified April 26, 2004, 01:10:13]


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