Dales Million-Dollar Day-Ga

TALLADEGA, Ala. – Everybody hates restrictor-plate racing. Too nerve-wracking, too close for comfort.

And even though Dale Earnhardt Jr. won Sunday’s EA Sports 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, you can probably count him among critics. But not for the reasons you might think.

Nearly four hours after Earnhardt Jr. held off Tony Stewart to win his second straight restrictor-plate race, NASCAR officials announced the No. 8 Chevy failed a post-race inspection.

NASCAR vice president of corporate communications Jim Hunter said Earnhardt Jr.’s car was one-eighth of a inch under the minimum height requirement of 51 inches. Spokesperson Danielle Humphrey also said Earnhardt Jr. did not jump on the roof after the race.

The victory will stand, as NASCAR announced Monday that it had fined crew chief Tony Eury Sr. $25,000 for the rules violation. It's the second time in two years NASCAR has taken action against a winner for the same infraction.

Jeremy Mayfield's crew chief, Peter Sospenzo, was fined $25,000 for the same violation after Mayfield had won a race at California Speedway last April.

The reaction by DEI officials was predictably somber Sunday night.

“They weren’t happy,” Hunter said. “When they left (the track), they were not showing the normal jubilation that you show after a victory.”

They should have been happy, for it was a hard-fought victory. Earnhardt Jr. watched in his mirror as Bobby Labonte flipped on his roof on the last lap, and then watched Jeff Burton tuck in behind him in the race to the checkered flag Sunday.

With that gentle push, Earnhardt Jr. duplicated his father’s drive from a year ago, winning the EA Sports 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. The victory was Junior’s second straight in a restrictor-plate race, and though he didn’t quite match his dominant performance in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona in July, Earnhardt Jr. clearly established himself as the man to beat on NASCAR’s biggest tracks.

And Bobby Hamilton thought Kevin Harvick was trying to be like Earnhardt? No, the only true Earnhardt is an Earnhardt.

“I was really glad to win this race,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I knew going about my dad winning this race last year. I knew all about that. The odds are against you so much here because it’s a restrictor-plate race. I don’t think anybody could have predicted the winner with 10 laps to go. It’s always really cool to do something that you father’s done.”

Earnhardt Jr. was on the inside of Tony Stewart, with Burton trailing, when a multi-car melee broke loose off Turn 2 on the final lap. Burton, forced to choose between Stewart and Earnhardt Jr. as to which car to draft with, picked Junior’s.

“I looked at every possibility and what I could do to get myself the best chance to win,” Burton said. “It just wasn’t going to happen for us. I had a choice: the 20 (Stewart) or the 8 (Earnhardt Jr.). The 8 had helped me so much get to where I was that the right thing to do was to pay the 8 back for the work he had done.

“That’s not a good spot to be in because you’ve got one guy pissed off at you and another guy happy at you.”

Earnhardt Jr. was appreciative.

“If he would have pushed the 20 car, the 20 car probably would have won the race,” Earnhardt Jr.

Stewart managed to beat Burton back to the line to claim second, with Burton finishing third. Matt Kenseth was a distant fourth, with Bobby Hamilton surviving the crash to finish fifth. Kenny Wallace was sixth, with Jeff Gordon’s seventh-place finish increasing his already substantial Winston Cup points lead.

Joe Nemechek was eighth, followed by Mark Martin and Kevin Lepage.

Gordon managed to avoid the last-lap wreck, but Ricky Rudd, his closest pursuer in the Winston Cup championship battle, didn’t. Rudd finished 26th and lost 61 points to Gordon, who leads by 395 with five races left. All Gordon has to do is finish 19th or better in the remaining races to clinch the title. And if he maintains his current lead, Gordon will clinch the title in the Pennzoil 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 11.

But none of that seemed to matter Sunday. As happy as Earnhardt Jr. was, there were many more drivers as mad as a woodpecker in a petrified forest. And their anger prompted an unusual response from NASCAR: We’ll fix what’s broken.

Drivers were generally well-behaved in Sunday’s race, but with 50 laps to go, courtesy went away like the morning fog. NASCAR’s aerodynamic rules for its biggest tracks kept the field together, and two- and three-wide racing was the norm in the latter stages.

Then, on the last lap, the fierce racing turned ugly. Labonte, who had just been rooted out of the lead by Earnhardt Jr., skated up the track to block a pass by Hamilton. Instead, Hamilton moved low, and the two got together.

“I actually spun the 18 (Labonte),” Hamilton said. “I went high, but he went way high to block me. I had a good enough run that I turned left and got up under him. Well, he turned left to block me. He didn’t know I was there, and it turned. Pretty hairy.”

That’s for sure. Labonte turned down into Ricky Craven and then flipped on his roof. Before the smoke cleared, 16 cars were involved.

“What happened? You tell me,” Labonte said. “I got a good run on the 20 (Stewart) and the 8 (Earnhardt Jr.) car. You block people and you try to win, that’s what you do here. (The crash) wasn’t anybody’s fault, it’s just the nature of the beast here.

“We’re OK. It’s just typical racing here. The safety stuff worked fine, so if we don’t get killed here otherwise, it’s OK. Heartache and hard feelings lead to bitterness, and there’s just bitterness right now.”

Lots of bitterness. Need proof? There’s tons of it. And it was all directed at NASCAR, which kept its same aero rules despite a multi-car test here in August designed to find a solution.

“It ain’t the drivers. It’s NASCAR,” said Sterling Marlin, who finished 17th after getting involved in the crash. “You run it all day, you’re going to wreck. Every driver has been telling ‘em in the NASCAR trailer that it’s going to happen. They wanted it to happen. Somebody hit somebody.”

“I hope they’re proud of themselves,” said Ward Burton, who limped around to finish 21st, the last car on the lead lap. “We came down here and tested (in August). A lot of us learned something, but they didn’t learn anything. They must have been at a different test than we were at.

“If this is racing, they can have it and I think everybody in the garage will say that. It’s ridiculous. If they want us to run that race, make the track twice as wide. Then maybe we’d have a place to pass. There’s nowhere to go. When it’s three wide, there’s nowhere
to go.”

“I was listening on the radio in the ambulance on my way to the care center, and the commentators said how exciting a race it was, so I guess everybody got their money’s worth,” said Labonte, who led the penultimate lap but ended up 22nd. “It doesn’t matter about us.”

Bill Davis, owner of Ward Burton’s and Dave Blaney’s cars, hinted a boycott was possible.

“I think we ought to refuse to do it,” Davis said. “There’s something that can be done so the drivers don’t have to put themselves at that kind of risk. That’s what they’ve got to do on the last laps. They can’t sit there.”

Even drivers not in the wreck were upset.

“When you come off of Turn 2 after the checkered flag’s over, and you see your teammate’s car upside down, it scares you to death,” Stewart said. “And there is no reason that we, as drivers, should be put in that position.”

Stewart himself was in that same position during the Daytona 500 in February.

Even Gordon was upset about the way the racing went Sunday.

“It was out of the drivers’ control,” Gordon said. “I’m happy to get through here with a top-10 finish. The thing I don’t like is that we don’t have any control here, so anything can happen.”

Several drivers went to the NASCAR trailer to voice their displeasure, and NASCAR seems willing to listen.

“The overriding question is, ‘What are we going to do to prevent accidents like this and racing like this in the future?’ ” NASCAR vice president for corporate communications Jim Hunter said. “We don’t like this any more than our drivers do. Thus far, we have been unable to come up with a solution.

“But we’re going to figure this out, and we’ll figure it out before Daytona next year, and the teams will help us figure it out.”

Hunter didn’t have any details, but there likely will be on-track testing in December.

“They’ve got to fix it,” Sterling Marlin said. “They had it fixed if they had done the rules they tried down here in the test. Eighty percent of us wanted it and 20 percent didn’t, so they went with the 20 percent. I guess they wanted to see us wreck.”

Hunter disputed both of those statements. He said the drivers were split “50-50” on what to do after the August test, and that NASCAR clearly doesn’t want to see accidents. Instead, NASCAR wants to “put things back in the drivers’ hands.”

“In an ideal world, the solution would include trying to figure a way the drivers would have to back off in the corners and not run wide-open around this place,” Hunter said.

Maybe the solution would take away Earnhardt Jr.’s advantage. Still, even Junior wanted to see changes made.

“Each time we run one of these races, we are smarter about the patience we need to have,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It’s still not enough, apparently. I’m just glad I wasn’t in any of the wrecks that happened today. They should make some changes as soon as they know what to do.”

If NASCAR has any questions, they need to ask Earnhardt Jr. Clearly, he knows what to do on these big tracks.

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