TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Michael Waltrip broke Dale Earnhardt Jr's stranglehold on Talladega Superspeedway, sweeping high off the final turn and denying his teammate a fifth straight victory at the high-banked oval Sunday.
Waltrip took the checkered flag in the EA Sports 500, a typically thrilling Talladega race that resembled a night at the short track. There was all sorts of banging and bumping before it came down to a four-lap sprint to the finish.
After pole-sitter Elliott Sadler was taken out in a spectacular crash on lap 182, his car flipping several times on the backstretch, NASCAR officials red-flagged the cars to give the rescue crew time to clean up.
A couple of laps under yellow followed, then Waltrip led the pack as the green flag dropped. He never relinquished the lead, though Earnhardt was on his bumper the entire way.
Coming off the fourth turn for the final time, Waltrip went high to block Jeff Gordon. Earnhardt got a peek to the inside, but Waltrip dove to the bottom of the track to block his DEI teammate and cruised across the line to win by about a car length for his second victory of the year and fourth of his career.
He turned a few doughnuts on the grass in front of the main grandstand, then emerged from his car through a new escape hatch in the roof.
Waltrip was the only driver to install the hatch, approved by NASCAR in time for this race to give drivers another means for escaping their cars in a crash or fire. For him, it turned out to be a new way to celebrate.
"That was fun," Waltrip said. "I took a big move off four to seal the deal. I went high to block Gordon and looked to my left, hoping Junior was not there. It was a calculated risk, but I don't think I win the race if I don't block Gordon."
Gordon wound up slipping to fifth after Waltrip broke his momentum. Tony Stewart, who skipped practice Saturday because of a severe headache, wound up third, while Ryan Newman took fourth.
Waltrip took the victory by 0.095 seconds - about one or two car lengths. Drivers from Dale Earnhardt Inc. have won nine of the last 12 restrictor-plate races at Talladega and Daytona.
"It was just a wild and crazy day," said Earnhardt, the first driver to win four straight Winston Cup races at the 2.66-mile oval. "I don't know if I could take too many more of these. It was too crazy for me and I'm about the craziest one out here."
NASCAR tinkered with the restrictor-plate rules for this race, giving the cars a little more horsepower but raising the spoilers to keep speeds from getting too high.
The result was a thrilling but downright harrowing race, the cars bunched tightly as they jostled for position. There were 41 lead changes among 17 drivers in the 188-lap event.
Waltrip's Chevrolet won with an average speed of 156.045 mph.
"It was typical Talladega," Stewart said. "Everybody's going left, everybody's going right and no one knows where they're going to finish. I'm just glad to be walking out of here."
Sadler left on a stretcher. The pole-sitter got tangled up with Kurt Busch coming down the backstretch and the No. 38 Ford flew into the air, sliding on its roof through the grass before flipping 4 1/2 times and coming to rest right side up at the start of turn 3.
Sadler got out of the car on his own, but he was flown to a hospital in Birmingham for a precautionary examination.
Earnhardt, who suffered a concussion and sprained right foot in a crash at Dover last weekend, overcame some less-serious problems to make another bid for victory at Talladega.
He started 38th after his qualifying run was disallowed because of an illegal car. He ran into more trouble early in the race, punching a hole in the front of his No. 8 Chevrolet when Jason Jarrett and Ricky Craven got tangled ahead of Junior on pit road.
Earnhardt had to make a return trip to the pits, where his crew hastily taped some mesh across the hole in the grill. By lap 61, the leaders swept by to put the defending champion a lap down.
But Earnhardt worked his way back into the lead pack, then got his lap back when he bumped Waltrip from behind on lap 143. Waltrip careened into Jimmie Johnson, who went into a spin while the DEI teammates made it through.
Winston Cup points leader Matt Kenseth wasn't so fortunate. He failed to finish a race for the first time this year, blowing an engine while contending for the lead on lap 158.
Kenseth finished a season-worst 33rd but still has a comfortable lead in the standings. With seven races left, he's up by 354 points on Kevin Harvick and 384 points on Earnhardt, who swapped places with Johnson in the standings.
Kenseth had not finished lower than 22nd all season. He placed among the top 10 in 22 of 28 races, failing to finish only two laps until his engine blew up.