Earnhardt goes his own way for victory

Points leader does not pit late, holds off Johnson to take win at Richmond

Auto Racing

May 16, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

RICHMOND, Va. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. turned into a moonlight gambler last night and won the Chevy American Revolution 400 at Richmond International Raceway.

Earnhardt chose not to follow race leader Tony Stewart into the pits during a caution period on Lap 346 for a final pit stop, and then, on the restart, drove away from everyone.

Jimmie Johnson, who also gambled on not pitting, finished second.

"I left it up to my crew," Earnhardt said. "But I was real loose on new tires, so pitting wasn't really an option. When they showed the confidence in me and told me to stay out, I just put the pedal down."

Earnhardt was joyous after the victory. He made smoky doughnuts on the front straight, thanked the crowd of about 108,000 for their cheers and rejoiced over a pass he made on Johnson, not to win, but to take the lead on Lap 132.

"We're having a great season," said Earnhardt. "I passed the 48 [Johnson] on the outside. I don't know where that came from. I told him after the race I felt like my daddy for five minutes. It was awesome.

"I really don't often compare my driving to my daddy," said Earnhardt, the son of late seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt. "Usually, my driving style is compared to my grandfather Ralph, not my dad. I'm usually not that aggressive. But it's kind of neat. It's never really come over me like that before."

Earnhardt rode on the same set of tires for 105 laps and beat Johnson by 1.481 seconds. He averaged 98.253 mph. Bobby Labonte finished third, followed by Stewart and Matt Kenseth.

Jeff Gordon, who was seeking his third straight victory, finished sixth, and was pleased with that finish. He was not all together pleased with Stewart, who made what Gordon considered a rough pass late in the race.

"We're seeing it every weekend and you think a guy getting abuse by the media and the drivers would start thinking a little bit more," Gordon said. "He had a much faster car, fresher tires, got inside of me and the position was his and he just drove straight into me and put me in the wall and about put himself in the wall.

"It's unfortunate. It cost us a top five [finish]. But it was a good effort. We came from way back to finish sixth, so I'm pretty happy with that."

The win was Earnhardt's 12th career victory, his second at this three-quarter-mile oval and his third of the season, which is a season high among Nextel Cup competitors.

He won $285,053.

The win also enlarged his Cup championship points lead to 40 over Johnson and 62 over Gordon, who is third.

"Considering we were in an accident, we're really happy to finish second," said Johnson, whose right front fender was damaged when he was caught in a crash involving Joe Nemechek and Jamie McMurray on Lap 203. "In the end, we felt we were in the right position to win, but Junior had a different idea about that."

Stewart, who put on marvelous racing displays with side-by-side battles with Johnson, Ryan Newman, Gordon and Earnhardt, had no complaints at the finish, but he did defend himself.

"We got a little loose there and I got into Jeff and I'm sure Darrell [Waltrip] and those guys up there [in the television booth] are lobbying for me to get suspended for life from NASCAR. But that's the only incident we had all night. We had a pretty clean night.

"At the end, I just didn't have enough for the eight [Earnhardt] or the 48 [Johnson]," said Stewart. "They were the best all night. But our car drove so well."

The fact Stewart, with fresh tires, wasn't able to make his way from fourth back to the front over the final 54 laps, was somewhat surprising to Earnhardt.

"I did expect Tony to come up through there," Earnhardt said. "But track position is important and I also knew he'd have to work pretty hard."

Richmond International Raceway faced a test last night. With a new surface, thought to have been made slick by a day of blazing sun, no one was quite sure how the racing would be.

Some feared many crashes. But the track surprised them. Though there were nine cautions for 66 laps, there were also two racing grooves that elicited thrilling racing.

"This might be a racetrack owner's dream," said Earnhardt. "I don't know what they used to surface it, but for the first race they've ever run on it to produce this kind of competitive racing, whatever they did, they did it right."

NOTE: Before heading to Richmond to compete in the NASCAR race, full-time Nextel Cup driver Robby Gordon averaged 216.522 mph over four laps (10 miles) to qualify 18th for the Indianapolis 500, set for May 30.

Also, Buddy Rice, who replaced injured Kenny Brack at Rahal Letterman Racing, pulled off a surprise by winning the pole, posting an average of 222.024 mph at the time trials at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Results

NASCAR Nextel Cup

Chevy American Revolution 400

At Richmond, Va. 1. (4) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevy, 400, $285,053.

2. (5) Jimmie Johnson, Chevy, 400, $135,350.

3. (27) Bobby Labonte, Chevy, 400, $142,333.

4. (28) Tony Stewart, Chevy, 400, $127,478.

5. (29) Matt Kenseth, Ford, 400, $122,303.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.