Gordon nips Earnhardt at Talladega

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 26, 2004

TALLADEGA, Ala. - Jeff Gordon soaked up the moment after his first win of the season. He beat the driver whose team has dominated at Talladega Superspeedway, and the fans' angry protest.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. found a very different reason to enjoy it.

When NASCAR declared Gordon the winner in Sunday's Aaron's 499 - finished under caution rather than with any last-lap drama - it proved the fan favorite doesn't get all the calls, after all.

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''I'm real glad that one of these calls finally went against me,'' Earnhardt said. ''It's going to shut up a lot of people.''

And his fans voiced their opinion by tossing beer, soda cans and whatever else was handy onto the Talladega track.

The normally straight-laced Gordon had his fun with the scene, easing around the track and spinning his wheels in a victory celebration.

''I know it's going to be controversial, but I don't care,'' he declared in the winner's circle.

He seized the lead from Earnhardt with six laps remaining, setting the stage for a scintillating finish. It didn't happen.

Earnhardt was making a strong bid for the lead coming off turn four of lap 184 in the 188-lap race when rookie Brian Vickers and Casey Mears collided. That brought out the 11th caution flag of the race.

Just like that, Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s string of five straight Cup wins - four by Earnhardt and one last fall by Michael Waltrip - at Talladega was over.

Earnhardt questioned NASCAR's ruling that Gordon held the lead when the caution started, but last fall's rule change means the field is frozen when the yellow comes out rather than letting the competitors race to the flagstand.

''I just feel like I was ahead of him, that's my only argument,'' Earnhardt said. ''Other than that, I thought it was a great race.''

It was Gordon's third win on Talladega's 2.66-mile oval and the 65th of his NASCAR career, and just as satisfying even with the anticlimactic finale.

''It seems like a long time since I've won any race,'' said Gordon, whose last win came at Atlanta in October 2003, a 12-race drought.

''I can't think of a better one to win.''

The first ruling had Earnhardt's No. 8 Chevrolet ahead. Gordon said he knew he had a slight lead.

''When I got to turn 2 they said the No. 24 was ahead of the No. 8,'' Gordon said. ''And I said, 'Really? OK.'

''He rode next to me because obviously he wanted to fight the call. Neither one of us really knew.''

Earnhardt had another brush with controversy at Talladega in the 2003 spring race, getting the benefit of the decision that time. His No. 8 Chevrolet was clearly below the yellow out-of-bounds line when he passed Matt Kenseth for the lead with five laps to go, but NASCAR let the win stand despite the rules violation.

''I've been on both ends of this, getting the call to go for you, getting the call to go against you,'' said Earnhardt, who expanded his series lead to 94 over Jimmie Johnson. ''I was racing below the yellow line last year, and they called it fair.

''This one didn't go my way. It's not a big deal.''

NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said a videotape review clearly showed Gordon ahead when the caution lights came on.

''We turned the lights on when the wreck was in progress,'' Hunter said. ''We had a great piece of footage that showed the two cars, so it was really clear-cut that Gordon was in the lead.''

Hunter said Tony Eury, Earnhardt's crew chief, looked at the video and said, ''I understand.''

Gordon, a four-time Cup champion, led four times for a total of 15 laps. Earnhardt led 11 times for a race-high 57 laps.

Kevin Harvick was third, and Gordon's teammate Johnson was fourth.

''I still feel the DEI cars are more dominant than the rest of us, but I think we've closed the gap,'' Johnson said.

NASCAR didn't get the green flag back out for a race to the finish, keeping it under caution to the end and igniting the fans' anger when they realized Gordon was going to win.

''Here and at Daytona, we're not going to have a one-lap shootout just because of safety,'' Hunter said. ''We're just not going to do that.''

There had already been enough bumping and banging at speeds above 190 mph in a race typical of the recent Cup events at both Talladega and Daytona, the tracks where NASCAR requires horsepower-dampening carburetor restrictor plates to slow the cars.

The big wreck came on lap 84 when Tony Stewart tapped the rear of Kurt Busch's car near the bottom of the banked track, sending Busch sliding sideways up the banking right in front of a huge pack of cars.

The crash left 10 cars scattered around the fourth turn. The cars driven by Busch, Derrike Cope and Kenny Wallace had to be hauled off on flatbed trucks. There were no injuries.

Earnhardt and Waltrip had combined to win 10 of the previous 13 races at the two big tracks.

Waltrip ran near the front most of the day but faded at the end to finish 12th.

''Beating the DEI cars,'' Gordon said, ''is difficult to do.''