TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat in his car for what seemed like an eternity. He ran his hands through his hair, then buried his face in them.
When he finally climbed out, he took a long look at the damage on his Chevrolet, circling the red No. 8 to find every dent.
Earnhardt officially handed over his throne as the king of restrictor-plate racing to Jeff Gordon, who won at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday for his fourth victory in the last five plate races.
Earnhardt finished a distant 15th after he was involved in a six-car accident in the closing laps.
"We didn't have a good car at all,'' Earnhardt said, his voice thick with disappointment. "Jeff's car was awesome and when you get those kind of cars, you get the wins.''
Earnhardt was unable to explain the falloff of his car, which is routinely the strongest at Talladega and Daytona, the only two places NASCAR requires horsepower-sapping restrictor plates. Earnhardt has five Talladega wins and two at Daytona.
"Nothing is wrong, it just ain't the best,'' he said. "It's good, but it ain't the best. We used to have the best.''
Did that mean that Gordon had passed him as the best plate racer in the Nextel Cup series?
"It's pretty obvious to me,'' he muttered. "Do I even need to answer that question?''
Earnhardt had an off weekend, qualifying 36th for the race. He didn't need long to move toward the front, but struggled to take the lead and did so just one time for three laps. And unlike past years, when drivers all tried to move onto his rear bumper and let Earnhardt pull them to a high finish, Junior found he had few friends out on the track.
"Everybody wants to win, it ain't push Dale to victory,'' he said. "We didn't have a good car, that was part of it. They'll push you if you are fast, but they get tired of pushing you if you are slow.''
Not everyone was quick to dismiss Junior, though.
Tony Stewart has often teamed up with Earnhardt at plate races, and tried doing it several times on Sunday.
"The times we were together today we weren't as potent a combination as we were in the past, but I wouldn't say it was over,'' said Stewart, who finished second. "I don't think you can take two races and say it's over. I wouldn't count him out yet.''
Michael Waltrip didn't share his teammate's complaints about the Dale Earnhardt Inc. cars not being up to par anymore at restrictor-plate races.
Waltrip's car was good enough to finish third on Sunday and put him in position where he believed he could make a run at race-winner Jeff Gordon.
His teammate, Earnhardt Jr., finished 15th after an accident and said the DEI cars weren't as good as Gordon.
"Could we use some more horsepower? Shoot yeah,'' said Waltrip, who started in the 38th position. "Horsepower's pretty cool. But these cars are pretty darn good the way they are.''
Even with him giving runner-up Tony Stewart a nudge, Waltrip and Stewart couldn't make up enough ground during the overtime laps, set up after Earnhardt was involved in a six-car accident near the end.
Waltrip said that was more a credit to Gordon than an indication his own car wasn't up to speed.
He said he was so close to Stewart he couldn't see much beyond the No. 20 car's rear bumper, but "I just kept thinking any minute now we're going to pull up on Gordon.
"That tells you that Jeff's car was a little bit faster than everybody's today, but my car was plenty fast,'' Waltrip said. "My car was plenty fast to win but I couldn't catch Gordon.''
Often second best
Tony Stewart scoffed at any suggestion he hasn't been successful at Talladega because he's never won here.
Despite missing out on Victory Lane, Stewart does have four runner-up finishes and eight top 10s in 13 races at Talladega.
"As many second-place finishes as we have, 41 guys didn't have it as good as we had it those days,'' Stewart said. "A lot of the days we ran second here, it was as good as a win for us. Today, for example, we didn't have the best car here and we got second place.
"That was the best we could do, and we're leaving with smiles on our faces.''
Actually, the sometimes contrary driver has a great time at Talladega -- away from reporters, at least. He shuts his cell phone off, goes fishing with Hall of Fame racer Red Farmer and enjoys the calm of rural Alabama.
"It's a week for me to get away,'' Stewart said.
It was just another Talladega trial for Rusty Wallace. The veteran driver finished 22nd in Sunday's race, giving him only two more cracks at his first career victory at a restrictor-plate race.
Wallace, in his final season as a Nextel Cup driver, has finished in the top five just once in 44 races at Talladega and that came 17 years ago. He is also 0-for-43 at Daytona.
"I've had some good runs here, and I had a real good run at Daytona and finished 10th,'' Wallace said. "But this place here, they get compact and everybody gets real crowded. It's a lot to ask people to run that close that long.''
Turn this car over
Casey Mears walked away unscathed from a scary accident in the Busch Series race that sent his car sliding down the track on its roof for several hundred yards.
Mears called Saturday's slide "pretty wild,'' but had harsher words for the emergency crews that rushed to his aid. Although he praised their response time, Mears was upset because the workers didn't help him get out of the car.
"The guy was just looking at me, he had no idea what to do,'' Mears said. "I kept yelling for them to turn the car over so I could get out, but everyone was just staring at me. I had to take my helmet off and wiggle out of the car.
"That could have been a real problem if the car had been on fire, or had hot oil spilling all over me. None of them had any idea what to do, and they needed to turn the car over so I could get out.''
NASCAR officials said the emergency crews would almost never turn a car over with the driver inside because at that moment, they have no idea the extent of the drivers' injuries. Flipping the car could risk doing further damage.
Mears thinks that needs to be looked at.
"There was no way for me to get out of that car when it was on its roof without taking my helmet off,'' Mears said. "If I had to get out of there fast, or if the car was on fire, they would have had a real problem.''
The jack man for Jeff Burton's team was injured when Rusty Wallace hit him during a pit stop. Josh Yost had torn ligaments and a severe cut on his right ankle. ... Tony Stewart was the big climber in the points standings, jumping eight spots to sixth after his second-place finish. ... Kevin Harvick started from the pole, but battled early overheating problems that forced him to drop to the back. He was still in contention, though, until he was involved in a late accident that caused him to finish 12th.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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