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Two-tire stop pays off for Junior

7/10/2005

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt Jt.

JOLIET, Ill. -- The roar from the crowd told the story after
Sunday's NASCAR Nextel Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway: Dale
Earnhardt Jr.
is back.

The fan favorite finally appears to have broken out of a nearly season-long slump.

A sellout crowd of about 100,000 at the suburban Chicago track
was howling its approval as the jubilant Earnhardt celebrated his
first win of the season by smoking the tires of his No. 8 Chevrolet
and hugging crew members in the infield grass.

"I was worried I was going to go winless this year," the
relieved Earnhardt said after taking the 16th victory of his career
and his first since last November in Phoenix. "Now, let's go out
and do it again, win some more."

To get this win, Earnhardt and his team had to beat dominating
Matt Kenseth with late-race strategy. Kenseth led 176 of the 267
laps on the 1.5-mile oval, but wound up second after choosing to
change four tires and falling behind on his final pit stop in the
USG Sheetrock 400.

"We obviously didn't have the best car today," Earnhardt said. "Matt Kenseth had the best car, hands down."

But this turned out to be Junior's day.

Since opening the season with a third-place finish in the
Daytona 500, Earnhardt has had a mostly miserable season and little
to smile about until he turned in a third-place effort last week in
the Pepsi 400 at Daytona. He started 25th on Sunday and spent most
of the day hovering near the back of the top 10.

On lap 216, during a caution period, Earnhardt's crew made a
lightning fast, four-tire stop, moving their driver from eighth to
third, just behind Kenseth and Stewart.

He fell to fourth after the restart, losing a spot to Greg
Biffle. But, when the last of 10 caution flags waved on lap 249
after Mike Bliss and Jeff Gordon crashed, all the leaders got a
last chance to pit on a day when right-side tires were blistering
and causing numerous blowouts and crashes.

Scott Wimmer stayed on the track and took the lead, while
Earnhardt and several other drivers took only two tires and moved
ahead of both Kenseth and Tony Stewart, who took the time to put on
four tires after coming into the pits first and second.

The green flag came out on lap 255, and it took Earnhardt three
laps to get past Wimmer, who then faded quickly. Meanwhile, Kenseth
charged toward the front, grabbing second place from Brian Vickers
on lap 261.

But Kenseth couldn't catch Earnhardt, finishing 0.291-seconds --
about five car-lengths -- back.

"I still thought he would catch me and beat us on the last lap
or with two to go," Earnhardt said. "But there were two or three
laps when he didn't catch up much on us and I just drove it as fast
as I could, and it was enough."

Earnhardt crew chief Steve Hmiel made the two-tire calls on the
last two stops.

"It was just one of those no-brainer decisions," Hmiel said.
"Junior just got up on the wheel like I know he can and he won the
race."

Jimmie Johnson, the series points leader, came back from a lap down to finish third, followed by Vickers and Stewart.

"It's been a long time coming, man," said Earnhardt. "It's a
lot of emotion, more than I can handle right now. For these guys,
all the darts they've had thrown at them this year. It's just
awesome.

"I thought we had a top-10, maybe a top-five car," he added.
"My guys on pit road won the race for me. Got me out front with
two tires."

Kenseth, who has not won since March 2004 at Las Vegas, was
bitterly disappointed.

"Our car was awesome," he said. "I'm trying to be a gracious
loser, but it's a tough one."

The call to take on four tires was made by his crew chief,
Robbie Reiser, but Kenseth wouldn't criticize him.

"I can't really blame Robby. We were kind of a sitting duck. A
lot of guys were going to either stay out or take two tires,"
Kenseth said. "Overall, it was a great day, just a tough one to
lose."

Stewart, still aching from a crash on Friday that forced him to
go to a backup car and start from the rear of the 43-car field, was
also disappointed that he couldn't pull off a third straight
victory and defend his win here last year.

"If we'd have stayed out like I wanted to, we'd have won the
race," said Stewart, who has now finished third, second, first and
fifth in his last four starts at Chicagoland.

Greg Biffle, second in the season standings, finished 11th
Sunday and fell from 73 to 108 points behind Johnson. With his 16th
career victory and first since last November in Phoenix, Earnhardt
moved up to 13th place, 115 points behind 10th-place Kurt Busch and
491 points behind Johnson.

The top 10 drivers and any others within 400 points of the
leader following the 26th race of the season will be eligible to
race for the series championship over the final 10 events.

For four-time series champion Gordon, who finished 33rd, it was
his sixth finish of 30th or lower in the last eight races. He fell
to 15th place in the standings, 502 points behind Johnson, his
Hendrick Motorsports teammate.