Junior Restrictor-Plate King

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TALLADEGA, Ala. – Another NASCAR Winston Cup Series race, another Earnhardt victory at Talladega Superspeedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. once again dominated a restrictor-plate race, winning Sunday’s EA Sports 500 and taking his third straight victory at the mammoth 2.66-mile tri-oval.

Five of the last six Winston Cup Series races at Talladega Superspeedway have been won by an Earnhardt. Dale Earnhardt Sr. swept the two Talladega events in 2000 and won 10 races overall at Talladega.

A Dale Earnhardt, Inc. car has won six of the last eight restrictor-plate races (Earnhardt Jr. four, Michael Waltrip 2).

“We’ve had some good times here, I’ll tell you that,” Junior said of Talladega. “I’m wore out. We had a good car. I’m really surprised that Tony (Stewart) didn’t try to beat me. I guess it’s hard to pass the leader here at times. We had good fuel mileage and we won this race because of the guys on this crew.”

In a wacky day for the championship contenders, Tony Stewart came out on the long end of things as he finished second and took over the lead in the standings. Stewart now leads Mark Martin by 72 points with six races remaining. Jimmie Johnson is 82 points back, Ryan Newman 137 and Rusty Wallace 147.

It’s the first time Stewart has ever led the Winston Cup points standings.

“This is for the people at Home Depot,” Stewart said. “They’ve stuck with us through thick and thin. We had an awesome day today. The big thing is just finishing here and not getting into any trouble. I didn’t even try to get by him in the last few laps. There’s just something about those two cars (his and Junior’s), that if we don’t have problems, then we’re going to finish strong.”

Ricky Rudd finished third, followed by Kurt Busch and Jeff Green, Steve Park, Ryan Newman, Michael Waltrip, Dale Jarrett and Ward Burton.

Earnhardt Jr. made his final pit stop with 39 laps to go. That put his fuel window on the edge, but the No. 8 Budweiser Chevy was able to make it the rest of the way.

Championship contenders Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin had problems before the race even got under way.

On one of the final pace laps, the steering on Martin’s locked up and his car got loose and careened down into Johnson’s, and both cars ended up in the infield grass. Martin, who started second, was black-flagged by NASCAR, but didn’t lose a lap despite falling back to the 42nd position.

"It was just a hydraulic problem," Martin said. "If you rush the steering like that, it's going to lock up. It just wasn't our day. We also had a flat tire that cost us a lot of positions, so it was just a tough day."

Johnson, who started from the pole after qualifying was rained out Friday, received damage to his right front fender, significant enough to slow him up and put him at the rear of the field.

Crew chief Chad Knaus and team owner Rick Hendrick complained to NASCAR that the start of the race should have been delayed, but it wasn’t. By Lap 4, Johnson had already been put down a lap by the field.

Johnson pitted under green and lost even more ground.

“The damage was pretty substantial (to Johnson’s car),” Knaus said. “Anytime you get any kind of damage to a superspeedway car, it’s substantial.”

Johnson wound up finishing 37th.

Martin, who wound up finishing 30th, pitted on the pace lap before the green flag. Because he didn’t take on fuel, he wasn’t penalized a lap by NASCAR. Martin was put a lap down on Lap 16, but the problem his car experienced earlier seemed to clear itself up.

“Just by looking at the television monitor, it seemed to be a mechanical problem,” team owner Jack Roush said of Martin’s steering problem. “The steering locked up as he tried to turn. Whatever the mechanical problem was, it worked itself out.”

Later, with approximately 22 laps to go, Johnson, like his Hendrick Motorsports car co-owner Jeff Gordon Sunday, lost a cylinder and hurt himself even more in the championship chase.

Earnhardt Jr., who had won the two previous race at Talladega, started from the 13th position by was in second by Lap 8. By lap 17, he had taken the lead for the first time.

Gordon, who won last week’s race at Kansas Speedway and came into Talladega 109 points behind Johnson in the championship chase, looked strong for a good portion of the event before the engine on his No. 24 DuPont Chevy gave way on Lap 127.

Gordon wound up finishing 42nd, put a severe dent in his hopes to repeat as Winston Cup champion.

“We lost a retainer in one of the valve springs,” Gordon said. “That thing (his car) was pretty strong, an I was having a lot of fun out there, but this is unfortunate. That’s been our misfortune all year long. We can’t seem to get any momentum going after we have a good week, and then carry it into the next week. It was a big bummer out there today.”

The EA Sports 500 marked the first restrictor-plate race where NASCAR reduced the size of the fuel cells in the cars from 13 gallons to 22 gallons, in an attempt to force more pit stops and thin out the field more often during the race and to prevent “the big wreck.”

For the most part, NASCAR’s plan worked, and the “big wreck” never happened. However, several teams miscalculated on their fuel mileage and cars frequently ran out of gas, including Kevin Harvick, who was running in the Top 5 on Lap 110 of 188 before running out on the worst possible place on the track, between Turns 1 and 2.

He had to coast all the way back around the mammoth 2.66-mile track and lost a couple of laps in the process.

The first green flag pit stops at Talladega are normally made between Lap 50 and 55, but fuel and two tire pit stops began on Lap 32 and ran through Lap 38. Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip were among the last to pit on Lap 38, indicating that the DEI cars appeared to be getting better fuel mileage.

There were 35 lead changes among 12 drivers Sunday.

The Winston Cup Series will be back on the track next Sunday in the UAW-GM Quality 500 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

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