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.