One inch makes the winner in Atlanta

After being criticized for dull and boring races, the NASCAR Winston Cup Series delivered the most competitive event of the season Sunday. Dale Earnhardt won the Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway in one of the closest finishes in...

After being criticized for dull and boring races, the NASCAR Winston Cup Series delivered the most competitive event of the season Sunday. Dale Earnhardt won the Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway in one of the closest finishes in Winston Cup history, defeating Bobby Labonte by .009 seconds.

It was the 75th career Winston Cup victory and ninth at this track for Earnhardt, who started 35th.

To put the result in perspective, the two cars crossed the finish line side by side with the nose of Earnhardt's Chevrolet some eight inches ahead of Labonte's bumper.

"It was an incredible finish," Earnhardt said. "I was just running and holding Bobby Labonte off. We went at it as hard as we could. That is what we had to do. Mike Skinner had run awfully well all day long, but we were able to get to Victory Lane.

"Mike Skinner had the car to beat, and then he broke something in the engine. Bobby Labonte was strong after three or four laps. I found a groove and I was holding him off. That was good racing, that was close."

Sunday featured fantastic racing throughout, with a season-high 30 lead changes among 17 drivers. But the driver who led the most was Skinner, who was in front for 191 laps of the 325-lap race before his engine blew up just 20 laps from his first career victory.

That came one lap after a restart following a caution flag after Michael Waltrip's engine blew on lap 298. The leaders pitted on lap 300 and Earnhardt told his crew to change all four tires, rather than only two. Although that put Earnhardt fourth on the restart on lap 304, he immediately passed Mark Martin in the second turn and Labonte for second place on the same lap.

Moments later, Skinner's race ended in a puff of smoke from the engine.

Earlier, Skinner and Earnhardt were involved in an on-track altercation that caused Earnhardt to shake his fist at Skinner, who was trying to block his teammate's Chevrolet.

"Pow, no warning whatsoever," Skinner said of his engine. "I ran the Chevrolet as hard as it would go. That's all we had, it just came up 20 laps short. It's a pretty stout car. It's a shame. I don't know what I've done, I'm sure sorry. I've got a monkey on my back, I'll tell you.

"I'd crash my mom to win my first race. Dale did what he had to do and I did what he had to do. I'm sure he'd do the same thing to me. I wasn't going to wreck him, but I sure hope Dale Earnhardt wins this race."

The green flag waved on lap 313 with Earnhardt in front, followed by Labonte's Pontiac. Martin, Steve Park and Ken Schrader rounded out the top-5.

One lap later, Labonte used a high line in an attempt to go around Earnhardt for the lead. Earnhardt's Chevrolet ran better on the low side and maintained its position.

But on lap 316, Labonte went high and Earnhardt went to block him. Labonte was able to pass Earnhardt on the backstretch, but the seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion did not give in as he put his Chevrolet around the high side of Turns 3 and 4 to regain the lead at the start-finish line.

Earnhardt began to pull away from Labonte's Pontiac, building a five-car length advantage. But on the white-flag lap, Labonte closed to his bumper, drew up to the side of Earnhardt's car and the two raced side by side through turns 3 and 4 before crossing the finish line two abreast.

Martin was third in a Ford, followed by Park and Joe Nemechek.

-nascar.com-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Bobby Labonte , Steve Park , Mike Skinner , Ken Schrader , Joe Nemechek , Mark Martin