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Bristol – Junior sweeps the high banks.

By Andrew Charman

Five years to the night after Dale Earnhardt last won at Bristol son Dale Jr finally conquered the half-mile speedway, finally closing the door on a traumatic mid-season highlighted by the burns suffered in a sports car crash in July. But there were varying fortunes for the drivers really worried at present, those fighting for the 10th spot in the championship points and a place in the final 10-race shootout that will begin in three weeks time.

Bristol in August – a half mile, high banks, and night-time. It's a guaranteed crash-fest, and normally drivers are happy to survive it. But for drivers holding any place from sixth to 15th in the championship, mere survival would not do this night. They needed a good points haul from this race.

Jeff Gordon had no such worries – the points leader would start the Sharpie 500 from pole in search of a sixth Bristol win. The man he took the points lead from last week, team-mate Jimmie Johnson, would start right at the back after crashing in practice and going to a backup car, while everyone would be watching the 24th-place starter, Kurt Busch going for a fourth straight Bristol victory.

Gordon's #24 Dupont Chevrolet duly led the first of the 500 laps, each around 15 seconds in length, with fellow front-row starter and 2004 rookie sensation Kasey Kahne heading the chasers in his #9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge and looking to hold onto his series 10th spot..

Trouble came early, with 19 laps down, as Jimmy Spencer's #4 Food City/Supreme Clean Chevrolet bounced hard off the wall, allowing several drivers unhappy with their cars to pit for attention. The respite was brief, Gordon picking up where he left off but now with Sterling Marlin's #40 Coors Light Dodge as his nearest challenger, Kahne quickly slipping back behind Jamie McMurray's #42 Havoline Dodge, Mark Martin's #6 Viagra Ford and Elliott Sadler in the #38 M&Ms Ford. But already yellows were flying again as Scott Wimmer and Ricky Craven touched, slapping Joe Nemechek's closely following #01 US Army Chevrolet hard into the wall.

They went green on lap 41, Gordon still ahead, and we got 16 laps in before Ricky Rudd's #21 Motorcraft Ford pincered Mike Wallace's #09 Phoenix Racing Dodge, Rudd smacking the wall. Everyone pitted this time, and while many took two tyres Gordon took four, dropping to 11th. New leader was the #2 Miller Lite Dodge of Rusty Wallace, taking advantage of pitting on the previous caution. But he soon lost out to Dale Earnhardt Jr, the #8 Budweiser Chevrolet another early pitter as Earnhardt looked to add to his Busch series race victory 24 hours earlier. Bobby Labonte's #18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet was next up and then Marlin, amazingly chased by the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet of last starter Johnson. Fastest though was clearly Gordon, up to fourth by the time the yellow flew again on lap 83 for Ricky Craven's spin. But the restart lasted yards, Matt Kenseth checking up and forcing the following Brendan Gaughan's Kodak Dodge hard into the wall, Kyle Petty's car also sustaining damage.

Earnhardt led Wallace, Marlin, Gordon and McMurray back to restart number five on lap 99 and Rusty then spent several laps making a pass for the lead stick as we at last got a long green flag run, bad news for Kahne, slipping back rapidly with an increasingly loose Dodge. On lap 187 he went a lap down to leader Wallace, who then dropped back behind Earnhardt.

With 200 laps down green-flag pit stops began, and proved disastrous for several contenders, especially Wallace who ran out of gas and lost a lot of time getting restarted, losing three laps on the leaders. He got two of them back as the stops cycled through, leader Earnhardt in on lap 217, while the strong-running Mark Martin lost out by slowing through both front and backstretch pit roads when he needed to use only one. At half-distance with the stops complete Earnhardt led Johnson from McMurray, Dale Jarrett's #88 UPS Ford fourth from Matt Kenseth's #17 DeWalt version. Gordon held 11th on the tail of the lead lap after sliding through his pit box, Wallace 17th a lap down.

Some 229 laps of green flag racing came to an end with a debris caution, just in time for Kevin Harvick who had no feeling left in his shoulder and had sent his team searching for a backup driver to take over the #29 Goodwrench Chevrolet. Earnhardt was first of the mere six lead lap cars to pit, everyone else coming in and many making changes. The green flew on lap 338, Earnhardt leading away from Johnson and Jarrett, but within 20 laps the Budweiser Chevy was forced to give best to Johnson, just before the caution flew again for debris. Junior clearly had problems, heading into pit road for a new set of tyres along with four others of the seven lead lap cars. Meanwhile Harvick admitted defeat to his numb right shoulder, Kyle Petty taking over his Chevy.



Related Pictures

Click on relevant pic to enlarge
Dale Earnhardt Jr found a novel way to celebrate his Bristol win (Picture, GM Media)
Dale Earnhardt Jr, back in the winning habit at Bristol (Picture, GM Media)
Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett both had good Bristol runs to stay in the points chase (Picture, Autostock/Ford Motor Co)
Marcos Ambrose, driver of the #9 Stanley Ford, poses with his team before his last race, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 16, 2014 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo Credit: Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet SS, celebrates his victory and the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship Sunday, November 16, 2014 winning the final NASCAR Sprint Cup race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida. Ryan Newman, driver of the #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet SS finishes 2nd. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet SS, celebrates his victory and the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship Sunday, November 16, 2014 winning the final NASCAR Sprint Cup race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida. Ryan Newman, driver of the #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet SS finishes 2nd. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet SS, celebrates his victory and the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship Sunday, November 16, 2014 winning the final NASCAR Sprint Cup race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida. Ryan Newman, driver of the #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet SS finishes 2nd. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet SS, celebrates his victory and the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship Sunday, November 16, 2014 winning the final NASCAR Sprint Cup race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida. Ryan Newman, driver of the #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet SS finishes 2nd. (Photo by Christa L Thomas/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet SS, celebrates his victory and the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship Sunday, November 16, 2014 winning the final NASCAR Sprint Cup race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida. Ryan Newman, driver of the #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet SS finishes 2nd. (Photo by Garry Eller/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 Napa Auto Parts Chevrolet, wins the EnjoyIllinois.com 300 race at Chicagoland Speedway on July 19, 2014 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo Credit: Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet SS, who is in the Championship Four final phase of the Chase, qualified for 5th position Friday, November 14, 2014 for Sunday`s final NASCAR Sprint Cup race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida. Harvick is 4th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings.(Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS, who is not in the Championship Four final phase of the Chase, qualified for 2nd position Friday, November 14, 2014 for Sunday`s final NASCAR Sprint Cup race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida. He will be joined on the front row by Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet SS who won the Pole position. Photo by Garry Eller/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet SS, who is not in the Championship Four final phase of the Chase, won the pole position Friday, November 14, 2014 for Sunday`s final NASCAR Sprint Cup race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida. He will be joined by Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS on the front row. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Ryan Newman, driver of the #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet, speaks during a press conference prior to practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 7, 2014 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo Credit: Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Carl Edwards, driver of the #99 Fastenal Ford, climbs out of his car during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 7, 2014 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo Credit: Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, talks to his crew chief, Paul Wolfe, after failing to advance to the championship round of the Chase for the Spring Cup after the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 9, 2014 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo Credit: Rainier Ehrhardt/ Getty Images)

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