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Earnhardt Jr. in a storm again

He'll likely keep his win in the EA Sports 500 after his car fails inspection, but controversy follows victory for him again.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 22, 2001


TALLADEGA, Ala. -- No one will suggest this one was fixed.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won Sunday's EA Sports 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, picking up a $1-million bonus and vindicating his restrictor-plate win at Daytona in July.

Maybe.

Four hours after he pulled into Victory Lane, NASCAR announced his No. 8 Chevrolet failed postrace inspection. The roof measured one-eighth inch lower than the required 51 inches. Precedent indicates NASCAR will not strip Earnhardt Jr. of the victory, but he will be penalized. Worse than that, the ruling will cast a shadow over what should have been a bright moment in his career and a stormy NASCAR season.

Again.

Sunday's win was his third under remarkable circumstances, prompting wonder about what unknown forces -- cosmic, divine, heavenly or otherwise -- might be steering his course.

In July, Earnhardt Jr. won the first race at Daytona after the death of his father, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500. Skeptics accused NASCAR of orchestrating the feel-good win.

"I guess we proved that it wasn't no fix over in Daytona," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I had to do it. ... To put all those people in the bed they made themselves makes me feel good."

Last month, he won at Dover Downs in the first race after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. On Sunday, he won a year and six days after his father's final victory in the same event. Today, Earnhardt Jr. likely will remain the winner, but he won't be happy.

Taking away Earnhardt's victory would create a mess. Not only did 160,000 fans leave the track believing Earnhardt Jr. -- a Talladega favorite -- won, but Carrie Richter of Ohio was paired with Earnhardt Jr. in a bonus program that awarded $1-million to each if he won.

"In situations like this in the past, NASCAR has let the winner keep the win, but assessed very heavy penalties, both money and points," NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter said.

Last season, Jeremy Mayfield and Jeff Gordon failed inspection after victories at California and Richmond, respectively. Both were allowed to keep their wins but both were fined and Gordon was docked 100 points.

Strong in all four restrictor-plate races this season, Earnhardt Jr., who won $1,165,773, clearly had the car to beat.

He led 67 of 188 laps, but was 14th on a restart with 32 laps left. Six laps later he was fourth, and with one lap to go, second. He passed Bobby Labonte on the inside, headed to Turn1 and held of a backstretch challenge from Tony Stewart to win by .388 seconds.

Stewart finished second ahead of Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth and Bobby Hamilton.

The big wreck drivers deemed inevitable with the aerodynamic rules for restrictor-plate races happened on the backstretch of the last lap. Contact between Labonte's No. 18 Pontiac and Hamilton's No. 55 Chevrolet triggered a 15-car pileup.

Labonte got the worst of it; his car flipped onto its roof and skidded down the backstretch. Seven drivers were taken to the infield medical center, though no one was injured.

Ahead of the wreck, Earnhardt Jr., Stewart and Burton sped away, leaving several mangled cars that likely would have secured top-10 finishes to limp the remaining half-lap to the finish.

"If this is racing, they can have it, and I think everybody in the garage area will say that," said Ward Burton, whose No. 22 Dodge barely made it across the line in 21st. "It's ridiculous."

Some didn't make it.

The No. 28 Ford of Ricky Rudd stalled 20 yards shy, relegating him to 26th and further damaging his championship chase. Points leader Gordon, who escaped the wreck with just a flat tire to finish seventh, extended his lead to 395 points with five races left.

While most of the garage area fumed, Earnhardt Jr. posed for pictures and made his way to the press box through a throng of adoring fans who stayed more than an hour after the race.

"I was really glad to win this race," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I knew going in about Dad winning this race last year and winning the million dollars. It's always cool to do something your father's done."

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