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Earnhardt Jr. figures it out at Bristol

Knight Ridder Newspapers

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. was taught the secret of winning at rough-house little Bristol Motor Speedway four years ago. But the trick was so astounding, seemed so unlikely, that it took him until Saturday night to make himself execute it consistently.

"When I was a rookie, my daddy was here and we were practicing for the race -- and I was all over the place, wasn't running very good," Earnhardt said in the wee hours of Sunday after winning the Sharpie 500 on the half-mile track where his late father won nine times.

"He got on the radio and told me, 'Look, I want to tell you when to lift and when to get on the gas.'

"And he was like, 'Now . . . Now . . .'

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"He kept on . . . 'Now . . . Now . . .'

"And I was like, 'Why am I lifting at the flag stand? I can go much farther into the corner!'

Bristol seemed all about all-out aggression, staying on the gas until you were deep into the turn. To back off the accelerator in the middle of the straight-aways seemed like sure surrender.

"He was like, 'You gotta understand, Son, you lift at the flag stand but you don't use any brakes. You're not really losing a lot of speed by the time you get there (into the middle of the corner) and you don't upset the car by nosing it over (forward) with the brakes.'

"He said, 'You keep repeating that, you're gonna put together a lap faster than anybody else has discovered.' "

Finally Junior figured out "why he wanted me to lift so early -- because he wanted me to get back on the gas early."

It was sort of a NASCAR version of early to bed, early to rise . . . lift earlier than anyone else but then stomp the accelerator earlier than anyone else, right in the middle of the corner.

"And you're gonna carry so much more speed off the next corner," the elder Earnhardt had explained.

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But wait a minute: Did Junior mean that the secret of NASCAR's most notoriously slam-bang free-for-all track, as bequeathed by NASCAR's most notorious bump-and-grind driver, is to drive -- of all things -- smoothly?

"Exactly," Junior said. "You've hit the nail on the head."

Junior knew it rationally, but he said, "It's really hard, you know. You've got guys around you driving deeper into the corner than you."

But he did it, made the race a breeze for himself and got his first Nextel Cup win at the track his father both loved and mastered. He also won Friday night's Busch Series race at Bristol.

Strategically, Earnhardt cut his deficit to points leader Jeff Gordon almost in half--from 139 to 75 -- with two more races remaining until NASCAR's new playoff, called the Chase for the Nextel Cup, begins on Sept. 19 at New Hampshire International Speedway.

Earnhardt remains third in the standings behind Jimmie Johnson, who finished third to move within 24 points of Gordon, who had a bad night at Bristol and finished 14th.

"We can win the championship," Earnhardt said flatly. "We might not bounce back to full consistency right away (Saturday night's win was his fourth of the season but broke a 12-race losing streak that dated back to May 15), but we're gaining on it."

Ryan Newman's second-place finish vaulted him into 10th place -- the cutoff point for drivers eligible for the championship after the 26th race of the season, Sept. 11 at Richmond, Va.

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Newman replaced rookie Kasey Kahne, who started the race 10th in points but finished 21st with an ill-handling car that got only worse after he was caught up in a multi-car fender-bender late in the race. Kahne dropped to 11th, 26 points behind Newman.

Mark Martin remained 12th but dropped into a tie with Jeremy Mayfield, 35 points out of 10th.

Dale Jarrett and Jamie McMurray are tied for 14th, 45 points behind Newman.

NASCAR

Nextel Cup

Sharpie 500

Saturday

At Bristol Motor Speedway (Bristol, Tenn.)

Lap length: .533 miles

(Starting postion in parentheses)

1. (30) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 500, $322,443.

2. (4) Ryan Newman, Dodge, 500, $213,887.

3. (11) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 500, $169,590.

4. (15) Jeff Burton, Chevrolet, 500, $128,280.

5. (8) Elliott Sadler, Ford, 500, $142,158.

6. (3) Sterling Marlin, Dodge, 500, $132,115.

7. (5) Jamie McMurray, Dodge, 500, $101,715.

8. (24) Kurt Busch, Ford, 499, $107,515.

9. (23) Matt Kenseth, Ford, 499, $134,168.

10. (14) Dale Jarrett, Ford, 499, $119,232.

11. (10) Greg Biffle, Ford, 499, $92,165.

12. (18) Robby Gordon, Chevrolet, 499, $114,152.

13. (7) Mark Martin, Ford, 499, $91,440.

14. (1) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 498, $135,118.

15. (12) Terry Labonte, Chevrolet, 498, $109,335.

16. (19) Bobby Labonte, Chevrolet, 498, $121,468.

17. (39) Scott Riggs, Chevrolet, 497, $111,522.

18. (16) Ward Burton, Chevrolet, 497, $79,075.

19. (6) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 497, $121,528.

20. (20) Brian Vickers, Chevrolet, 497, $87,835.

21. (2) Kasey Kahne, Dodge, 496, $107,535.

22. (9) Jeremy Mayfield, Dodge, 496, $101,510.

23. (40) Todd Bodine, Dodge, 495, $76,785.

24. (21) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 494, $110,963.

25. (28) Kenny Wallace, Chevrolet, 493, $71,740.

26. (13) Rusty Wallace, Dodge, 490, $114,248.

27. (36) Michael Waltrip, Chevrolet, 481, $105,961.

28. (41) Mike Wallace, Dodge, 468, $72,595.

29. (27) Jeff Green, Dodge, 462, $98,635.

30. (22) Casey Mears, Dodge, 433, accident, $87,675.

31. (38) Jimmy Spencer, Chevrolet, 430, $72,065.

32. (26) Ken Schrader, Dodge, 418, $71,455.

33. (25) Carl Edwards, Ford, 386, accident, $103,187.

34. (35) Ricky Craven, Chevrolet, 373, accident, $89,735.

35. (17) Brendan Gaughan, Dodge, 313, accident, $76,615.

36. (34) Scott Wimmer, Dodge, 268, accident, $87,005.

37. (31) Kyle Petty, Dodge, 150, accident, $76,759.

38. (42) Derrike Cope, Ford, 121, brakes, $68,250.

39. (33) Tony Raines, Chevrolet, 88, accident, $68,125.

40. (32) Ricky Rudd, Ford, 64, accident, $94,056.

41. (43) Morgan Shepherd, Dodge, 49, handling, $67,875.

42. (37) Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet, 31, accident, $75,755.

43. (29) Kevin Lepage, Dodge, 11, vibration, $67,862.

------

Winner's Average Speed: 88.538 mph.

Time of Race: 3 hours, 0 minutes, 36 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 4.390 seconds.

Caution Flags: 9 for 63 laps.

Lead Changes: 18 among 10 drivers.

Lap Leaders: J.Gordon 1-57; R.Wallace 58-63; D.Earnhardt Jr. 64-104; R.Wallace 105-118; D.Earnhardt Jr. 119-131; R.Wallace 132-190; D.Earnhardt Jr. 191-215; J.McMurray 216-223; J.Gordon 224-226; D.Jarrett 227; J.Burton 228; M.Waltrip 229-235; B.Labonte 236; T.Bodine 237-239; D.Earnhardt Jr. 240-355; J.Johnson 356-375; D.Earnhardt Jr. 376-390; J.Burton 391-415; D.Earnhardt Jr. 416-500.

Top 10 in Points

1. J.Gordon 3,380. 2. J.Johnson 3,356. 3. D.Earnhardt Jr. 3,305. 4. T.Stewart 3,195. 5. M.Kenseth 3,156. 6. K.Busch 3,051. 7. E.Sadler 3,019. 8. K.Harvick 2,923. 9. B.Labonte 2,919. 10. R.Newman 2,918.

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