Earnhardt prevails

Dale Earnhardt Jr., driving what he called "the best car over the field we ever had," ran down Jeff Gordon with 12 laps to go and won Sunday's Checker 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. Earnhardt bounced back from a bad finish a week ago at Atlanta with his second Phoenix victory in a row

Earnhardt prevails

Earnhardt won for the sixth time this year and now stands 47 points behind still-leader Kurt Busch in the championship run. Busch dodged bullets all day and salvaged 10th place on a day which could have been much worse. Gordon, who finished third Sunday, remains second in points.

The race, which took nearly four hours of clock time, was run after rain most of the morning, a rarity in Arizona, and light rain fell off and on, once forcing a 20-minute red flag. Moreover, there were 11 cautions, three in the final 30 laps, and NASCAR used its green-checkers procedure to finish the event.

The constant through it all was Earnhardt, who led 118 what turned out to be 315 total laps, with three added in overtime. He led three times, twice taking the lead with a pass on the track, as opposed to a move in the pits.

"As far as covering the field, that's the best we've ever had them covered," Earnhardt said. "I've had cars that turned better or drove better, but that was the best car over the field we ever had. Nobody could keep up with me. We were three-tenths better all day.

"The car was just really good. It just drove right up through there. I was just getting chills having a car that capable of winning. I couldn't believe those guys didn't have their cars as good as mine."

Junior, who started 14th, passed pole-winner Ryan Newman for the lead on Lap 60 and held it to the second pitstops on Lap 107. Five teams, including those of Elliott Sadler and Jeff Gordon, went for two tyres during the stops and came out in front, with Gordon seizing the lead on Lap 144. Earnhardt, however, reclaimed the lead when Gordon pitted under caution on Lap 145.

The only moment of doubt came when Earnhardt, leading, pitted under green on Lap 203, beginning a cycle of green-flag stops. Gordon also had returned to the pits when caution interrupted the sequence on Lap 226. Earnhardt stood 12th after the yellow, with Gordon back in the lead.

Gordon gamely fought off Robby Gordon and Kevin Harvick, then Casey Mears, who emerged as the top threat at Lap 280. Earnhardt, meanwhile, buzz-sawed through the difficult traffic on the flat mile, passing Harvick for third right behind Mears. Mears and Earnhardt then closed in on Jeff Gordon.

Junior bumped Mears once but backed off to let him recover. After waiting several laps for Casey to make a move on the leader. Earnhardt passed Mears as caution came out on Lap 299, then pounced on Gordon after the restart, seizing the lead on Lap 304.

"Gordon's car was terrible at the end," Earnhardt said, noting that Gordon's car plowed badly in the corners. "Casey was actually a little faster than me for a while there, but he got bottled up behind Jeff, and I caught them both."

The show wasn't over yet, however. Mears blew a tyre and wrecked on Lap 307, and almost simultaneously, Robby Gordon's engine blew, oiling the track. NASCAR, mindful of teams' gas mileage, threw another red flag to allow for track clean-up, then restarted the race on Lap 314.

Earnhardt easily pulled away to a 1.431sec victory, in just two laps. Rain began again just the chequered flag was shown.

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