Earnhardt soars in darkness to PIR win

Earnhardt soars in darkness to PIR win

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. dominated at Phoenix International Raceway to earn his sixth win of the season. Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon mounted a charge on Earnhardt but a series of late-race cautions slowed their progress. Dale Earnhardt ...

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. dominated at Phoenix International Raceway to earn his sixth win of the season. Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon mounted a charge on Earnhardt but a series of late-race cautions slowed their progress.

Dale Earnhardt Jr..
Photo by Kurt Dahlstrom.
"That was the best car over the field that we have ever had," said Earnhardt. "I couldn't believe those guys couldn't get there cars driving as good as mine."

Earnhardt easily sailed off to an eight-car advantage on the final restart of the event to grab his 15th career victory. It was welcome medicine for the No. 8 DEI Chevy team who had a disastrous result at Atlanta last weekend, and slipped down two spots in the Chase for the Championship.

"It's a relief to come back and win after a bad week," Earnhardt said. "It's still not what you want; you don't want to have a bad week.

"I'm not going to get all worked up about it. I am just going to race hard and try and finish good. The point race is too difficult to worry about it."

Earnhardt led three times for a race-high 118 laps on his way to his second win at PIR.

"It's that trip out here and back," Earnhardt said. "If you don't bring home the trophy, it's a long ride home. When we come to the West Coast we want to showcase our abilities and out talents out here. It's just great to win here."

Ryan Newman rebounded from a flat tire and contact with Mark Martin to finish second.

"Happy to be able to fight back from a lap down, the guys fought back and had good pit stops. We had to race our way back and it felt good to do that."

Jeff Gordon was third grabbing his 23rd top-10 finish of the 2004 season.

"We needed it to go green the whole way," said Gordon. "It was great pit strategy by Robbie Loomis (crew chief) and all the guys on this DuPont Chevrolet because I didn't think we had a shot at winning this race today.

"We got off sequence that paid off for us and we came home third. I thought I could hold off Ryan (Newman) there at the end. I got real tight off of Turn 2 and he got a run on me and there wasn't anything I could do. I tried to race him on the outside, but we'll take third today."

Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne complete the top five and provided an appropriate ending to a caution filled event. Harvick and Kahne battled hard for position as the race came to a close, and apparently they didn't leave the battle on the race track.

As the cars came down pit road post race, Kahne made contact with Harvick's bumper which prompted Harvick to exit his car and aggressively taunt Kahne; who remained in his Dodge. Kevin Hamlin, crew chief for the No. 30 RCR Chevy and several crew members, grabbed Harvick before a melee ensued.

"It wasn't quite as big of a deal as it turned out to be at the end, for sure," said Kahne. "We were on sticker tires and we were trying to pass up through there. We were the first car on stickers, so that was working really well for us. I was on the outside of him, and he pushed me up a couple times down in turns three and four.

"And then the race was over, and he finished fourth and I finished fifth and it was over. When we went down in turn one I rubbed him a little bit, and just gave him peace or whatever - just a normal after-the-race thing and he just started blasting me. He was just a little high strung. That was the last time I ran into him, other than when we ran into him over here (on pit road)."

Racers woke up to rain and cooler than average temperatures at Phoenix International Raceway. The rain subsided but low clouds continued to hang on the race track as Ryan Newman brought the field to the green flag for the start of the Checker Auto Parts 500.

Newman led caution free until lap 60 when the No. 8 Chevy of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. passed the No. 12 Dodge for the lead. Earnhardt led through the first caution at lap 76 as he easily beat the field off pit road to maintain the top position.

On the restart Newman began his charge on the No. 8 Chevy but Earnhardt showed that the DEI team had his ride dialed in. He easily sailed out to a five car length advantage over the field.

The caution waved again when the No. 17 Ford of Matt Kenseth cut a tire leaving debris on the racetrack at lap 104. Just prior to Kenseth's issues, rain began to pepper the race track.

NASCAR waved the red flag at lap 110 and parked the cars on pit road to wait out the wet weather. After a 21 minute red condition, the engines were restarted and the cars were run around under caution for 13 laps.

The green flag waved at lap 115 with Elliott Sadler leading. Sadler grabbed the lead after taking just two-tires on his pit stop. Earnhardt who took four tires restarted in the sixth spot.

The field did not stay green for long as John Andretti hit the wall on lap 118 causing the third yellow of the event. Sadler continued to lead on the restart at lap 124, but could not hold the lead in turn three as Jeff Gordon motored past.

At lap 129, a multi-car crash involving Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray and Kurt Busch brought out the fourth caution flag.

Jeff Gordon led until Scott Riggs spun on lap 144. Gordon, Sadler and Brian Vickers, the top three cars, all came onto pit road for service. Earnhardt, however, who was fourth stayed out and grabbed the lead followed by Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle who also did not pit.

Earnhardt continued to lead after Sadler hit the wall on lap 154 slowing the field for the fifth time. The No. 8 Chevy pulled out to a 2.2 second advantage over the field as the grid settled down into a long green flag run.

Earnhardt brought his ride down pit road at lap 203 under green flag conditions giving the lead to Kurt Busch as various pit strategies amongst the leaders began to play out.

Terry Labonte skidding and smacking the inside pit wall on lap 225 set up the final pit stops for most of the grid. After that round of service on the restart at lap 232, Jeff Gordon led followed by Robby Gordon, Casey Mears, Kevin Harvick and Rusty Wallace.

Earnhardt restarted 11th.

Gordon didn't have much time to enjoy the catbird seat, as the eighth yellow flew when Johnny Sauter spun into the infield grass hitting the wall on lap 240. Gordon maintained the lead on the restart and looked poised to win when the No. 17 of Matt Kenseth blew up with thirty to go causing the ninth yellow.

None of the top cars pitted leaving Gordon at the front of the pack on the restart at lap 294. Mears and Earnhardt launched a charge on the No. 24 Chevy but on lap 299 Jamie McMurray spun and hit the wall slowing the grid for the tenth time.

The field restarted with ten to go allowing Earnhardt to catch leader Gordon and pull out to a five car length advantage but the yellows just kept coming.

On lap 307, the third place car of Casey Mears cut a tire and hit the wall just as the No. 31 Chevy of Robby Gordon blew an engine. That set-up a green/white/checker finish as NASCAR red-flagged the event for a second time due to excessive oil on the racetrack.

That set up a three lap dash to the checkers. In the end Earnhardt jumped out to an eighth car length margin over the grid to win the Checker Auto Parts 500.

Point leader Kurt Busch finished 10th and maintains the lead by 41 points over Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (-47), Jimmie Johnson (-48), Mark Martin (-102), Tony Stewart (-142), Ryan Newman (-150), Elliott Sadler (- 322), Matt Kenseth (-336) and Jeremy Mayfield (-355) complete the top ten in the Chase for the Championship.

There were a track record 11 cautions for 63 laps and 10 lead changes among seven drivers.

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Series NASCAR-CUP