BUSCH: IRL: RaceBeat 2002-04-22

NASCAR Winston Cup: Dale Earnhardt Jr. was relaxed and confident as he raced toward a dominating victory in the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway. It was when NASCAR waved the red flag, pausing the action six laps from the end, that ...

NASCAR Winston Cup:

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was relaxed and confident as he raced toward a dominating victory in the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway. It was when NASCAR waved the red flag, pausing the action six laps from the end, that the fretting began. Earnhardt, who managed to avoid a 24-car wreck earlier in the race, easily kept his lead on the restart and held off teammate Michael Waltrip over the last five laps for his second straight victory on the 2.66-mile oval. Earnhardt, like his late father, has become a master of the superspeedways, racing off to his third victory in the last four restrictor-plate races and leading 133 of 188 laps. Still, there is always the specter of a multicar crash in the races on NASCAR's big tracks. Mark Martin, involved in the big wreck, brought out the third and final caution flag of the day when his battered car stalled in the grass on the back straightaway eight laps from the finish. With oil dumped on parts of the track, NASCAR -- just as it did in the season-opening Daytona 500 -- brought out the red flag and stopped the cars on the backstretch on lap 183 to give the safety crews time to clean the track and allow the race to finish under green. The cars were restarted after a delay of 15 minutes, 29 seconds and, after the green waved with four laps to go, the 27-year-old Earnhardt, whose father won 10 times on this track, fought off the challenge from his Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate. It was obvious Waltrip was working hard to keep the rest of the challengers off the leader's rear bumper.

Earnhardt said it was a comfort to have Waltrip behind him through much of the race. Waltrip beat Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500, the race in which Junior's father was killed, and Little E came back to beat Waltrip in an emotional July race in Daytona. The two DEI Chevrolets crossed the finish line with the red No. 8 out front by just 0.060 seconds -- about one car-length. Earnhardt, who has six career victories, averaged 159.022 mph. Kurt Busch, one of four Roush Racing drivers in the 43-car field, wound up third and was disappointed he couldn't win for team owner Jack Roush, in serious condition in a Birmingham hospital after crashing a small plane in south Alabama on Friday. Jeff Gordon, the defending series champion, wound up fourth, followed by current leader Sterling Marlin, Dale Jarrett and rookie pole-sitter Jimmie Johnson. Marlin leads Matt Kenseth, who finished 30th in another Roush car, by 109 points. Kenny Wallace, driving a car owned by Waltrip, finished fifth but was penalized to 21st for passing Marlin under the yellow line that runs along the bottom of the banked track. It was typical of races at Talladega and Daytona, the tracks where NASCAR requires the horsepower-sapping carburetor restrictor plates to keep the cars under 200 mph. Most of the field was bunched in tight packs throughout, racing two-, three- and sometimes four-wide on the high-banked track. There was plenty of bumping and scraping going on in the drafts, but nobody got in trouble for the first 163 laps, with the only caution waving on lap 115 because of debris on the racing surface. With tension building and the end of the race in sight, Mike Wallace, in the middle of the fast-moving traffic jam, rammed Tony Stewart into the outside wall as the pack raced off turn two. That set off the big melee that snared, among others, Martin, Rusty Wallace, Martinsville winner Bobby Labonte, Kevin Harvick and Jeremy Mayfield, all of whom were running with the leaders.

NASCAR Busch Grand National Series:

Jason Keller avoided a wild pileup that involved most of the 43-car field, then held off a strong challenge from Stacy Compton to win the Aaron's 312 Busch Series race at Talladega Superspeedway. Keller and Compton, racing at the front of a huge pack just 16 laps into the 117-lap event, were among only a handful of drivers who did not get caught up in the big crash. Only 21 cars were running at the finish, with third-place Tim Fedewa the only other car on the lead lap. In fact, the field was so spread out by that time, the sixth-place car of Jimmy Kitchens was six laps behind Keller. The big accident came on the backstretch of the 2.66-mile oval when Steve Hmiel banged into the rear of Scott Riggs, whose car turned into Johnny Sauter and sent Sauter flying into the air sideway in front of the rest of the pack. Before the crashing was over, 29 cars were scattered all over the backstretch pavement and on the infield grass. Sauter took the wildest ride, bouncing and tumbling into the infield and throwing up a big cloud of dirt and dust. Wallace, who was able to continue but eventually went out of the race with a hole in his radiator, shrugged off the accusations that he caused the big wreck. Sixteen drivers were checked at the infield medical center, with the only injury a cut on Scott Wimmer's tongue that took two stitches to close. The race resumed after a 40-minute delay with only seven cars on the lead lap. Compton led until the leaders made their final pit stops. Keller's Ford led the last 50 laps and crossed the finish line 0.163 seconds -- about two car-lengths -- ahead of Compton's Chevrolet, which ended the race with a bare nose where it's sponsor decal is usually displayed. Keller moved into second place in the season standings, trailing leader Jack Sprague by just 22 points and moving 68 ahead of two-time champion Randy Lajoie. Sprague finished 13th and Lajoie 17th, even though both were caught up in the big crash.

Indy Racing League:

Although he's a winner again, Scott Sharp has some unfinished business. After prevailing in a battle of strategies when polesitter Gil de Ferran ran out of fuel on the final lap of the Firestone 225 on Sunday, Sharp is heading for the Indianapolis 500. He'll be returning to the scene of one of the greatest embarrassments in auto racing history. As the polesitter last year, he spun out on the first turn of the race. But Sharp insists there are no lingering effects. Gil de Ferran had stopped on the 95th of 225 laps in the inaugural IRL race at Nazareth Speedway and was trying to nurse his car to the end. Sharp last stopped on lap 127, and thought he might not win because de Ferran was aided by several cautions that permitted him to save fuel. The cars ran slow under a yellow flag on laps 204 and 205. Sharp was wondering if that would be enough to deny him his seventh career victory and first this season. When he won, Sharp felt as if the hard work his team has put in during the last few weeks was beginning to pay off. De Ferran, who won here two years ago, giving car owner Roger Penske his 100th open-wheel victory, slowed coming off the second turn. Sharp raced by to take the lead, then held off Felipe Giaffone by less than a half-second. De Ferran coasted in third. Sharp won despite being sent to the end of the field earlier for clipping the right foot of Helio Castroneves' crew chief and tire changer Rick Rinaman. Sharp needed a caution and got one when Jaques Lazier and rookie Tomas Scheckter crashed on the 123rd lap. That permitted Sharp to take on fuel and stay out when the other leaders pitted late in the race. Now, Sharp heads for the Indianapolis 500. Kelley also was thrilled by the victory over his "hero,'' Penske, on the track he built in 1987 and operated for more than a decade. Penske thought the attempt to save fuel might result in the seventh victory by one of his cars on the track. But he didn't second-guess himself. IRL champion Sam Hornish, who started eighth, took himself out of contention when he got between Buddy Lazier and the wall as they went four wide attempting to pass on the narrow backstretch. Lazier's right rear tire hooked Hornish's left front. Lazier went into the wall and Hornish to his garage for repairs.

Lazier, the 2000 series champion, was upset. The accident cost Hornish 49 laps, but not the points lead. He leads de Ferran by five points after a 17th-place finish. The race was run under overcast skies with temperatures barely reaching 50. Light sleet began to fall near the halfway mark. It was about 40 degrees warmer when practice began two days earlier, and the radical departure forced the teams to make some adjustments to the aerodynamic setups to create better traction. Hoping to help the drivers get heat into their tires, the IRL permitted the cars to run six warmup laps. With cold and damp weather, the crowd was limited to about 10,000, about half of what CART was drawing before dropping Nazareth from its schedule this season after racing at the facility for 15 years. Sarah Fisher finished fourth, followed by Castroneves. The winner averaged 93.789 mph in a race slowed seven times by 116 laps of caution. There were seven lead changes among five drivers. Jaques Lazier and rookie Tomas Scheckter had a hard crash, and were taken to Lehigh Valley Hospital. According to Dr. Henry Bock, director of medical services for the IRL, Lazier was listed in stable condition with a lower spine fracture and a concussion. Scheckter was also listed in stable condition with a concussion and a lung contusion.

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Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Gordon , Dale Jarrett , Matt Kenseth , Bobby Labonte , Jeremy Mayfield , Tony Stewart , Rusty Wallace , Jason Keller , Tomas Scheckter , Kevin Harvick , Kenny Wallace , Randy Lajoie , Sterling Marlin , Mike Wallace , Kurt Busch , Stacy Compton , Sarah Fisher , Felipe Giaffone , Buddy Lazier , Scott Sharp , Helio Castroneves , Gil de Ferran , Jaques Lazier  , Jimmie Johnson , Jack Sprague , Scott Riggs , Johnny Sauter , Jimmy Kitchens , Jack Roush , Roger Penske , Sam Hornis