Originally created 05/16/04

Junior drives to third win of year



RICHMOND, Va. - As far as Dale Earnhardt Jr. was concerned, the decision to make a pit stop for new tires with 54 laps to go was easy: He wasn't about to give up track position at the end of the Chevy American Revolution 400 at the Richmond International Raceway.

While most of the other lead-lap cars thought fresh tires would be the key during the final 50 laps at the newly-paved -mile speedway, Earnhardt gambled on track position.

His decision resulted in his series-leading third victory of the season, and it solidified his status as a real contender for the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series championship.

Although he had tires that were more than 50 laps older than his challengers, he pulled away to an easy 100-yard victory over Jimmie Johnson. As soon as he crossed the finish line, he keyed his microphone and told his crew, "Start celebrating guys!"

The car - nicknamed "Aubrey James" - was the same one he used earlier this year at Las Vegas, where he finished 71 laps down in 35th place."It's a good car," Earnhardt said. "(Crew chief) Tony Eury Jr. had it set up for the long runs. It was a good car; a good track."

Earnhardt took the lead on the 346th lap when Tony Stewart pitted for new tires during a caution for Scott Riggs' blown engine. Other top-10 cars that also stopped included Bobby Labonte, Matt Kenseth and pole-sitter Brian Vickers.

"My car wasn't good on new tires, so it was an easy decision (to stay on the track)," Earnhardt said.

Earnhardt took off to a quick 50-yard advantage over Johnson on the restart with 44 laps to go, then methodically pulled away while Johnson wrestled with Labonte for second place.

Johnson held on for second, followed by Labonte in third, Stewart in fourth, Kenseth in fifth, Jeff Gordon in sixth, Vickers in seventh, Mark Martin in eighth, Ryan Newman in ninth and Michael Waltrip in 10th.

The top four finishers drove Chevrolets.

While there were several accidents and spins, the race didn't seem to bring out the type of anger that usually goes with a night of racing on the short track. In fact, the only real controversy came before and after the race, when Stewart said his recent problems - which have included a mandatory trip to talk with NASCAR officials - were being cultivated by Fox Sports announcers Mike Joy, Larry McReynolds and Darrell Waltrip.

The victory allowed Earnhardt to extend his lead in the Nextel Cup standings to 40 points over Johnson heading into next week's Nextel All-Star Challenge race at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C.

That race among race winners during the last two years won't count toward the championship, but it pays more than $1 million to the winner.

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.