Earnhardt Jr. speeds to victory at Talladega

Monday, October 22, 2001

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. charged by Bobby Labonte on the last lap, leaving him and a 16-car wreck behind while racing to victory Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

The win in the EA Sports 500 was sweet validation for Earnhardt, whose July victory at Daytona was questioned because it came in the first race there since his father's fatal crash in the Daytona 500.

Earnhardt Jr. so dominated the Pepsi 400, some drivers wondered whether NASCAR allowed him to use a more powerful engine. This time, on the only other track where engine rules restrict the speed of the cars, the victory didn't come easily.

"It was a rough race," Earnhardt said. "I wanted to win this one real bad because it was the same race my dad won last year. I just tried to back it up, you know."

Labonte shot into the lead on lap 184 of the 188-lap event on Talladega's 2.66-mile oval and Earnhardt, who had been in or near the lead all day, slid back to fourth before mounting one last charge.

The 26-year-old third-generation driver took his Chevrolet into the outside groove and powered toward the front with Jeff Burton's Ford pushing him along.

Earnhardt dived into second place on lap 186 and stayed there until he shouldered his way under Labonte's Pontiac as the leaders drove into turn one on the final lap.

As Earnhardt pulled away, Labonte drove high on the banked track to block Bobby Hamilton, who was racing him for position. They bumped, and Labonte's car slammed into the concrete wall near the exit of turn two and turned over.

Among those caught in the melee were Ricky Rudd, Dale Jarrett, Johnny Benson, Robert Pressley, Sterling Marlin, Bill Elliott, Ward Burton and Buckshot Jones. There were no injuries.

Tony Stewart, the center of attention leading to the event because of his reluctance to wear a head and neck restraint, drove a strategic race. He was far back in the field of 43 until the last 50 laps, then charged into contention and finished second.

Stewart, the last holdout against wearing a HANS or Hutchens device to protect against head injuries, was forced to don one this weekend after NASCAR made it mandatory earlier in the week.

Burton wound up third, followed by Matt Kenseth, Hamilton, Kenny Wallace and Jeff Gordon, who increased his series lead over Rudd to 395 points with five races remaining.

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