Earnhardt Jr. Plays Nice

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The question for Ryan Newman was inevitable.

“Have you had time to think about how lucky you were to have Dale Earnhardt Jr., and not Dale Earnhardt Sr., back there in that situation?” a reporter asked following Newman’s victory in The Winston, in which he had Earnhardt Jr. on his tail at the checkered flag.

“I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but I don’t know, I saw Dale Earnhardt race very clean very many times before,” Newman said. “I did think about it once because I was going through the tri-oval and I had an opportunity to pass three-wide going through and I would have had to go through the grass. I remember that’s what he (Dale Sr.) did. I think he won that night, so I was thinking about it. I was like, I probably shouldn’t do that right now.”

Earnhardt, the seven-time Winston Cup champion, earned his legendary nickname “The Intimidator) for his aggressive driving style. He knew how and when to “move” people out of his way, and that’s what endeared him to so many of his millions of fans. That’s what made so many versions of The Winston exciting.

But Earnhardt Jr. didn’t do that Saturday night. A prolific and skilled driver in his own right, Earnhardt Jr. had the opportunity to “intimidate” Newman on the final lap of the prestigious all-star event. He even gave Newman a little nudge in Turn 2, which got Newman a bit loose, but Newman was able to correct the car.

Earnhardt Jr. backed off the gas pedal a bit, and that allowed Newman to outrace Earnhardt Jr. the final three-quarters-of-a-mile to checkered flag to take the victory and the $750,000 first prize.

“That was just good, hard racing,” Newman said. “You know, he had four tires that were fresher than mine, and that’s what makes a big difference at this track. I don’t think there was (any contact between the two cars). I know he got underneath me and got the air off of my spoiler, but I don’t believe he did make contact with me. I don’t know that for sure, so I can’t say, but he was clean with what he did.

“I just had to do all I could to hold him off. It was just good, hard racing, really clean. He’s (Earnhardt Jr.) first-class because he could have taken advantage of a good situation for him there.”

Not that Earnhardt Jr. didn’t want to do that. It’s just that he figured if he followed through, he might have put Newman in the wall, and that might have taken him with Newman.

“I got a run on him, got into the back of him, but I backed off because I thought he had spun out,” Earnhardt Jr. “But, he saved it. I should have just stayed in the gas. He’d have went up the track and maybe I could have gotten on the inside of him.

“But if he’d have spun out, I would have come back to the checkered flag – that would have kind of been bittersweet. I mean, $750,000 is a lot of money – an awful lot of money. But, it ain’t worth all the people that you’d piss off by wrecking somebody to get it.”

Earlier in the race, Earnhardt Jr. skimmed the wall, with perhaps a little help from Newman. The two tangled again, but nothing came of it.

“Ryan ran Junior up in to the wall one time and we let him go,” said Tony Eury Sr., crew chief for Earnhardt’s No. 8 Budweiser Chevy. “Then Ryan tried to hook him again, and Dale Jr. had to turn loose. I guess he was being a sportsman, but I don’t know how to be a sportsman for $750,000. I guess it was the right thing to do.

“Our car wasn’t as good as Ryan’s because we were a little tight once we got in the back of the field. We’ll just have to work on our car and come back next week and win the 600 to help make up for some of these problems we’ve had the last three weeks.”

Newman became the second rookie ever to win The Winston. Earnhardt Jr. was the first, in 2000.

And you can bet that he’ll contend for many more victories in The Winston in years to come, giving his fans as many thrills as “The Intimidator” did.

“Of course, I’ll play this out (Saturday night) over a thousand times in my head for probably weeks wondering how I could have done something different,” Earnhardt Jr. “You want to win The Winston and the money that goes along with it, but there’ll be other chances.”

For an Earnhardt in The Winston? You can count on that. Maybe next time, with that big of a prize on the line, he won't play so nice.

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