LAS VEGAS - Once victory was out of sight Sunday - literally - Dale Earnhardt Jr. was left with only one battle in the closing laps of the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400.
With Matt Kenseth leading by nearly a half-mile at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Earnhardt had to fend off the challenge of Michael Waltrip for second place.
While neither managed to win, it was a significant finish for the Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammates. Earnhardt and Waltrip have finished one-two several times in the last three years, but Sunday's effort was the first time both were in the top-three at a raceway that doesn't use a restrictor plate.
"This is how good we're supposed to be," Earnhardt. "We know our potential. This is the kind of results - we're not used to, of course - but these are the ones we know we can produce."
DEI clearly has figured out how to win at the Daytona International Speedway and the Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, the only tracks on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series circuit that require the use of a speed-reducing plate on the engine to keep cars from becoming airborne during a crash. Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. have combined to win seven of the last nine restrictor plate events.
"We're all happy and relieved," Earnhardt said. "We've had a hell of a start to this year, so it feels real good to be able to run good and be happy with what you've got at the end of the day. Maybe this will shut up some of the critics."
All three of Waltrip's victories in Winston Cup came at Daytona. He's grown accustomed to hearing people say he only can win restrictor plate races.
"It doesn't bother me that people say I've struggled there (at non-restrictor plate events)," he said. "It bothers me that we kind of do."
Coupled with his victory at the Daytona 500 and a third-place run at Las Vegas, Waltrip recaptured the lead in the point standings. He has 461 points to lead Kenseth by three points.
The racing season, just three weeks old, is already off to a wild start. Only seven drivers have posted two top-10 finishes and only three have been among the top-five twice.
"Although we got off to a bad start (a broken alternator at Daytona and several spins a weeks later at Rockingham, N.C.,), I think we can come back and win the championship," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I think today does a lot for my confidence and I think it does a lot for the team's."
BIG CRASH: Mike Skinner took all the blame for a five-car pileup that sent his car, along with Jeff Gordon, Larry Foyt, Rusty Wallace and Kurt Busch, to the garage for repairs.
"It was my fault, I think," Skinner said. "I got beside Rusty and I got a little loose. I hate that it got the other guys. I've been on the receiving end of one of those things many times, so I know how it feels."
Gordon, Foyt and Busch made repairs and returned to the race, while Skinner and Wallace were done for the day.
Busch was the points leader heading into Sunday's race, but his 38th-place finish dropped him to sixth in the standings, 62 points behind.
POLITICAL COMMENTARY: Michael Waltrip made a passionate endorsement of President George W. Bush and the possible war with Iraq.
"I've been waiting to say this for a long time: We're a country and he's our leader. We need to unite behind him and support the decisions that he makes," Waltrip said. "Democrats and Republicans are all in Washington, and as a group, they're going to decide what is best for this country, and the president is just over the system. To turn your back on the flag or to protest at this time, it hurts my heart.
"I pray for the president and our country, and I just ask people to support the system and be behind him."
TELL IT LIKE IT IS: Although he was third, Waltrip drove his car through a post-race spin in the infield grass seconds after Matt Kenseth did the same thing after winning.
"When you're red-necking, grass like that is too inviting," Waltrip said. "I thought it would be cool to do. I've never done it anywhere but Daytona."
STOPPED: Mark Martin's blown engine on the 115th lap relegated him to a 43rd-place finish. It was the first time in six career starts at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway he failed to finish in the top 10.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.