TALLADEGA, Ala. -- With a miracle finish comparable to the parting of the Red Sea, Dale Earnhardt sailed up the middle lane from 18th place with five laps to go and won Sunday's Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Earnhardt had been running fourth in one of the few breakaways of the day until the race's final caution, brought out when Bobby Hamilton and Mark Martin wrecked off Turn 4 on Lap 168.
At the restart on lap 174, Earnhardt was 15th, with nowhere to go.
"It didn't look like I had an opportunity to win the race," said Earnhardt, who racked up his second win of the season and 76th of his career. "I was working awful hard to get back up front and get in contention to finish in the top ten.
"When we got in the middle (lane), we just started working the bottom and the middle, then Kenny Wallace got in there with me and (Joe) Nemechek. We just kept working, and those two guys pushed me to the front."
With five laps to go, all eyes were on the battle in front among Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bobby Labonte, Mike Skinner and John Andretti.
Cars basically stacked up in three lines -- inside, middle and outside -- and none of the three looked better than any other. Andretti nosed past Junior to lead briefly on lap 185, then yielded to Skinner, with Labonte taking second.
It was easy to get the lead but hard to hold it. No one could get away, and the fracas at the finish was no exception.
Then, suddenly, there came Earnhardt, right down the middle, with Wallace and Nemechek behind in a tight draft. He pulled to the outside of teammate Skinner with three laps to go, and the two ran side-by-side down the backstretch.
Coming to the finish line, Earnhardt Jr. broke out to the inside, briefly nicking Labonte and breaking Skinner's draft. That enabled Earnhardt, Wallace and Nemechek to blast by to the front. Now the job was to hold the lead against teammates Wallace and Nemechek.
"I figured I was going to get to the front and get passed again coming to the checkered flag because that's the way it was all day," Earnhardt said. "A guy got in front, then the next thing you know he got passed.
"I did feel like the last-lap chance for a slingshot was there, and I was working the race track. I wasn't sitting still waiting for somebody to make a move. I was doing what I had to do to shake the air up."
Earnhardt, the Talladega master, hung on for what became his 10th victory at NASCAR's biggest track, and, "to think anybody could come from that far back in the field and win this race was beyond me," he said.
The race was the first run under new car specifications, with new spoilers and blades on the bodies and a larger restrictor-plate on the engine. For the most part, however, the race looked like a typical Talladega race, with cars stacked three- and four-wide for three hours.
One difference, perhaps, was that no one car, or group of cars, could get away in a four- or five-car drafting line. The leader, most of the day, was a sitting duck if anyone cared to take a shot at him. There were 49 lead changes among 21 drivers, with some very uncustomary cars near the front.
At times, Mike Bliss, Elliott Sadler, Rich Bickle, Rick Mast and Ken Schrader appeared near the front. Even Dave Marcis led a lap under green.
On the other hand, some normally strong cars performed miserably, notably those of Jeff Burton, Dale Jarrett and Jeremy Mayfield -- all in Fords.
With the exceptions of Bill Elliott and Mark Martin, Fords weren't in the game, and many complained loudly afterward, blaming the narrower rear spoiler allowed the Chevrolets under the new package. The top six finishers were Chevrolets.
Overall, the race was wild, exciting and remarkably clean.
Drivers met with NASCAR after morning practice to express concerns, leading to the sanction to reduce the size of the plate midday Saturday. For the most part, until the end, drivers behaved themselves very well. The only multicar wreck came at the checkered flag, with four cars crashing across the line.
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