Monday, March 15, 2004

Earnhardt leaves troubles, field behind


Testing, maturity help him win at Atlanta

The Associated Press

HAMPTON, Ga. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. - and his team - are finally growing up.

A week after he nearly was parked for running too slowly, Junior zoomed by Jeremy Mayfield with 15 laps to go and sprinted to an easy victory Sunday in the Golden Corral 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

He also won the season-opening Daytona 500.

"Last week was as bad as it ever gets," Earnhardt said. "But we didn't get on each other too bad, and we stayed pretty focused."

That mentality is something new for him and his top two crewmen, the father-son tandem of Tony Eury Sr. and Tony Eury Jr., who are related to the Earnhardts. Their relationship runs hot and cold, and in the past, when things didn't go well, the disagreements were legendary.

"In the past, me and Tony Jr. would have ensued into a hellacious cussing match," Earnhardt said. "We would have really been at each other's throats. And Tony Sr. probably would have punched me in the face."

This year, it's different. The finger-pointing was kept to a minimum, and all worked hard for improvement at Atlanta.

"I'm just real proud," Earnhardt said. "Last year, we would have self-destructed."

Rookie Kasey Kahne was third - his third straight finish in the top three - and Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman followed.

Defending series champ Matt Kenseth, who won the previous two races, rallied from a lap down to finish sixth.

At Las Vegas last Sunday, Earnhardt started 26th and quickly drifted to the rear of the field. His Chevrolet was so far off the pace that NASCAR warned his crew he was right at the minimum speed.

"It was just so hard to go home and face your friends," Earnhardt said. "Everybody on my team was saying they were sick of hearing questions about what was wrong with the car, and I said, 'Dude, I've been hearing it all week.' You just can't get away from it."

After finishing 35th, Earnhardt and the team spent Thursday testing at Kentucky Speedway. Just as the session was ending, they hit on a setup that worked, and Earnhardt was fast all weekend at Atlanta.

"We went testing, and we're going testing this week," Earnhardt said. "We're going to test, test, test, until we lap the field."

He qualified seventh and stayed near the front, then dominated the latter stages. He passed Mayfield's Dodge for the lead with 60 laps to go and held the top spot until the leaders made their final pit stops under green.

Mayfield came in with 26 to go, and his crew changed four tires in 14.3 seconds. Earnhardt followed three laps later; his stop was nearly a second faster, but he came back on the track in third, behind Mayfield and Johnson.

With 20 laps left, Earnhardt drove by Johnson on the inside and set his sights on Mayfield.

He ran up high in Turns 1 and 2 to get momentum, then swooped underneath Mayfield down the backstretch, moving into the lead with hardly a struggle.

"We had a great car to start with, but it just seemed as the race went on, the tighter we got," Mayfield said of his car's handling. "Dale Jr. and those guys got ahead of the track and we didn't."

Kenseth started 30th, was up to 13th after 15 laps, and eventually got to sixth before the first pit stops. But he made a rare mistake, spinning his Ford as he came into the pits, and dropped a lap down after a drive-through penalty.

He made up the ground during a caution for oil on the track, because he was the first lapped car behind the leader, and got his fourth straight top-10 finish.

Kenseth leads Tony Stewart by 82 points, with Earnhardt another eight points back.

"I'm happy with the overall result considering everything that went wrong," Kenseth said. "At the beginning of the race, we had a lot better car than that, and I messed it up. I'm feel bad about that."

Nextel Golden Corral 500

Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway

Hampton, Ga.

Lap Length: 1.54 miles

(Start position in parentheses)

1. (7) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 325, $180,078

2. (16) Jeremy Mayfield, Dodge, 325, $137,750

3. (12) Kasey Kahne, Dodge, 325, $120,125

4. (3) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 325, $97,400

5. (1) Ryan Newman, Dodge, 325, $120,467

6. (30) Matt Kenseth, Ford, 325, $120,728

7. (19) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 325, $133,778

8. (13) Greg Biffle, Ford, 325, $74,000

9. (6) Dale Jarrett, Ford, 325, $96,217

10. (4) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 325, $114,228

11. (14) Dave Blaney, Dodge, 325, $64,275

12. (20) Kurt Busch, Ford, 325, $78,950

13. (21) Ward Burton, Chevrolet, 324, $63,775

14. (28) Mark Martin, Ford, 324, $70,550

15. (26) Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet, 324, $86,750

16. (31) Sterling Marlin, Dodge, 323, $94,800

17. (23) Robby Gordon, Chevrolet, 323, $92,987

18. (10) Bobby Labonte, Chevrolet, 323, $102,673

19. (18) Jeff Green, Dodge, 322, $83,615

20. (32) Jeff Burton, Ford, 322, $96,182

21. (2) Brian Vickers, Chevrolet, 322, $69,315

22. (29) Ricky Craven, Chevrolet, 322, $81,310

23. (15) Michael Waltrip, Chevrolet, 321, $93,591

24. (36) Terry Labonte, Chevrolet, 321, $86,560

25. (17) Scott Riggs, Chevrolet, 321, $85,072

26. (24) Ken Schrader, Dodge, 321, $59,235

27. (37) Scott Wimmer, Dodge, 321, $77,420

28. (27) Kyle Petty, Dodge, 321, $67,059

29. (5) Elliott Sadler, Ford, 320, $87,293

30. (39) Johnny Sauter, Chevrolet, 320, $66,335

31. (33) Ricky Rudd, Ford, 320, $81,316

32. (8) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 318, $90,963

33. (25) Brendan Gaughan, Dodge, 314, $63,120

34. (9) Casey Mears, Dodge, 302, engine, $56,000

35. (11) Rusty Wallace, Dodge, 291, $88,873

36. (35) Kevin Lepage, Chevrolet, 287, $55,005

37. (22) Jamie McMurray, Dodge, 245, engine, $62,970

38. (34) Derrike Cope, Dodge, 186, engine, $54,935

39. (41) Andy Belmont, Pontiac, 80, rear end, $54,890

40. (42) Kirk Shelmerdine, Ford, 60, handling, $54,840

41. (38) Todd Bodine, Ford, 16, engine, $54,800

42. (43) Andy Hillenburg, Ford, 15, engine, $54,760

43. (40) Joe Ruttman, Dodge, 6, vibration, $54,071

Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 158.679 mph. Time of Race: 3 hours, 9 minutes, 15 seconds. Margin of Victory: 4.584 Seconds. Caution Flags: 3 for 17 laps.

Lead Changes: 16 among 8 drivers. Lap Leaders: R. Newman 1-8; J. Gordon 9-46; T. Stewart 47-58; R. Gordon 59; T. Stewart 60-144; G. Biffle 145-146; T. Stewart 147-172; C. Mears 173; T. Stewart 174-177; C. Mears 178-213; D. Earnhardt Jr. 214-216; R. Newman 217-248; J. Mayfield 249-265; D. Earnhardt Jr. 266-301; R. Newman 302-304; J. Mayfield 305-309; D. Earnhardt Jr. 310-325.

Top 10 in Points: M. Kenseth, 673; T. Stewart, 591; D. Earnhardt Jr., 583; K. Kahne, 550; J. Gordon, 543; K. Busch, 527; J. Mayfield, 514; E. Sadler, 481; J. Johnson, 480; B. Labonte, 469.




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