Earnhardt conquers all

Dale Earnhardt Jr. scored big in a race he both needed and wanted Saturday night, winning the Sharpie 500 in front of 150,000 howling customers at Bristol Motor Speedway, most of whom were clad in Budweiser red

Earnhardt conquers all

Earnhardt, who had suffered through a mediocre six-week stretch during which he scored only one top-10 and fell from first to third in points, led 295 of the 500 laps, including the final 83, to drive home his first Cup victory at a track where his father won nine times. He passed game Jeff Burton for the lead on Lap 481and ran away to a 5sec victory over rallying Ryan Newman.

"Man, this is one of the biggest wins of my career - it's Bristol, man," a delighted Earnhardt shouted in victory lane. "[Earnhardt Sr.] made this place magical to an Earnhardt man, and I'm one of them. I may not have done it the way he done it, but it was close."

Earnhardt noted the struggles he and his team have endured the past two months, from losing the points lead at Joliet, Ill., and then being burned in sports-car crash at Sonoma, Calif., July 18. "You can't be No. 1 all the time," he enthused. "But that makes the wins sweeter."

The race was fast-paced and relatively clean by Bristol standards. Bristol, normally a slaughterhouse, this time produced only eight cautions, two of those for debris, and five of them in the first 100 laps. That allowed for more than 200 laps of green racing (from Lap 98 to Lap 327), which wore out the drivers and put a premium on racing skill around the brutal, 0.533mi oval.

Earnhardt also became the first driver in track history (beginning in 1961) to win both the Cup race and the Busch support event, with Junior equally dominating in Friday's night's Busch run. He started 30th Saturday night, but he and his team installed set-up components from the Busch car, and the Cup car immediately came to life.

Earnhardt bounded to the front via the staggering of early tire stops, with Junior among those who pitted on the first caution and skipped the second. Pole-winner Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace had controlled the first 120 laps or so, but Junior passed Wallace for the lead on Lap 126. Rusty passed him back a few laps later, but Earnhardt kept up the heat and took command from Wallace on Lap 192.

He built as much as an 11sec lead, phenomenal for Bristol by Lap 300 before the debris caution on Lap 327 closed the field. By that time, largely due to the long-gree, there were only eight cars on the lead lap.

Jimmie Johnson, also rallying from a rough patch (three straight DNFs), took the lead from Earnhardt shortly after the restart, but Earnhardt retook the lead on Lap 376, just before the races final caution, which took out Rusty Wallace and Carl Edwards.

Burton, giving Richard Childress's No. 30 car its best ride in more than a year, skipped the stops under this yellow and took the lead with 109 laps to go, but he was no match for Earnhardt, who bided time for a clean shot, taking it on Lap 418.

Newman finished second, Johnson third, and Burton fourth, giving the 30 team its best result of the season. Elliott Sadler was very steady in fifth place.

"We needed this," crew chief Tony Eury said of his team's victory. "The last two months, we've been awful."

Newman moved back into the top 10 in points with two races to go before the playoff cut. Five drivers -- Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Jeremy Mayfield, Jamie McMurray and Dale Jarrett, remain within 45 points of the transfer spot.

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