By Andrew Charman

Dale Earnhardt Jr just loves Talladega. His DEI squad is the acknowledged leading force in restrictor plate racing, and on Sunday Earnhardt maintained the dominance by taking the EA Sports 500. His fifth win at the frighteningly fast superspeedway came on a day which provided as much frantic pedal-to-the-metal action as ever but for once avoided the traditional big wreck.

Joe Nemechek kept up an enviable Talladega record for front row starts, the #1 US Army Chevrolet on the pole, and he led the 43 car field into the first of 188 flat-out laps around the 2.66-mile track. Within a lap the 190mph pack was formed, three and four-wide in places and all 43 covered by two seconds, fourth-place starter Scott Riggs moving the #10 Valvoline Chevrolet out front only to be almost immediately replaced by Elliot Sadler's #38 M&M's Ford - the first two of what would be 47 lead changes between 20 drivers this day.

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By lap four, most people's favourite to win had taken his customary place, four-time victor Dale Earnhardt Jr moving the #8 Budweiser Chevrolet up front. Coming fast behind was team-mate Michael Waltrip's #15 NAPA Chevrolet, aiming to establish a DEI dynasty at the head of the field - bad news for everyone else. But Sadler held doggedly onto second to deny the NAPA car.

Jimmie Johnson was next to try his luck, the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet stalking Earnhardt for several tours before moving ahead on lap 24. Just as the first pit stops were due Mike Wallace sparked a timely caution by blowing a tyre and spinning the #09 Miccosukee Gaming & Resorts Dodge, causing a heart-stopping moment for Tony Stewart as the Wallace car came back up the track in front of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet. The stops proved a disaster for Kevin Harvick, who slid the #29 Goodwrench Chevrolet into his pit box and sent his jack man flying, fortunately without injury.

The #41 Target/Breast Cancer Awareness Dodge of Casey Mears led the field back to green on lap 35, but after a frantic lap Johnson was at the front, heading the highest of three drafting lines of cars. Within six laps Rusty Wallace added the #2 Miller Lite Dodge to the growing list of leaders, then with 56 laps down championship leader Jeff Gordon moved the #24 Dupont Chevrolet to the front, earning a vital five bonus points as the race's 10th leader. But almost immediately the second caution flew to check for fluid on the track, a big break for 10th-placed Robby Gordon who had got plenty of said fluid on his windshield, making it impossible to see out - just what you need in the middle of a 190mph pack...

Waltrip beat Gordon and Johnson away from the pit stops to the lap 64 restart, but was immediately passed by the two co-operating Hendrick team-mates. Clearly with a good car this day was Rusty Wallace, juggling the lead with Gordon before Johnson forced his way back to the front, only for Waltrip to reclaim the place with some bumping help from the impressive Mears.

With every car boasting only a 14-gallon fuel tank pit visits would be frequent on this track, and on lap 94 the green flag stops began, a whole line of cars peeling off in a bid to maintain drafting partners. Strategies varied between two and four tyres, and by the time all the stops had cycled through Earnhardt Jr was back ahead from Busch and Scott Wimmer's #10 Caterpillar Dodge, while Mears' impressive run had been ruined by a one lap penalty for speeding on pit road.

The top three enjoyed 15 laps in single file before the chasing pack of three-wide cars caught up, and on lap 109 Busch briefly nosed ahead of Earnhardt to join the list of leaders, as did Ward Burton's #0 Netzero Highspeed Chevrolet a lap later. But soon Earnhardt had big opposition in the form of Gordon. By lap 119 the Dupont car led and the action behind was getting intense, so a caution on lap 123 came as relief to many, and just in time for pit stops. The cause was a detonated engine, ending an impressive run for Carl Edwards in the #99 Roush Racing Ford.

This time Mike Wallace took the two tyre route and thus led the field back to the green flag with 60 laps left. He held onto the place for a whole lap before Earnhardt forced his way past, Busch going with him but Jeff Burton's #30 AOL Chevrolet leading the lap by the width of its fender.

With the laps counting down getting to the front began to get urgent, and drivers willing to take bigger risks. Now all the favourites were up front, Earnhardt and Waltrip chased by Gordon, but Jeff having trouble finding drafting partners. But then came the first major accident, down the field as Hermie Sadler's #02 East Tennessee Trailers Chevrolet tagged Jeff Green's #43 Cheerios Dodge into the wall where it was hit hard by Nextel Cup chase contender Jeremy Mayfield's #19 UAW/Dodge Dealers Dodge, the cars of Jimmy Spencer and Bobby Hamilton getting involved too. Mayfield's car was wrecked, as were any lingering hopes Jeremy had of challenging for the 2004 title.

The DEI twosome led them back to green for a 40 lap sprint, which quickly saw Cup contender Jimmie Johnson in trouble, heading for pit road with an overheating Chevy motor. His team-mate Gordon still found himself without friends, dropping back down the pack as crew chiefs began to make deals in pit road, looking for partners knowing that if the race stayed green everyone would need a gas-and-go pit stop before the end.

With 15 laps left the bottom drafting line caught the top one, pushing Kevin Harvick's #29 Goodwrench Chevrolet past Earnhardt to a brief lead before Waltrip bumped his team-mate back to the front. Then they were heading for the pits, and as a whole pack of cars slowed the confusion caused the #18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet of Bobby Labonte and Sterling Marlin's #40 Coors Light Dodge to collect each other on the track, sparking a caution. Marlin had been convinced he had enough fuel to go to the end without stopping...

The rest of the field pitted under caution, Waltrip coming back in to change what he suspected to be a deflating tyre. Up front now were Brendan Gaughan's #77 Kodak Dodge and the #5 Kelloggs Chevrolet of Terry Labonte, both teams gambling on not pitting, but when the green flew with five to go they were soon swallowed, Harvick hitting the front pushed by team-mate Robby Gordon. But with two fresh tyres Earnhardt was coming fast and hit the front with three to go. It all erupted on the last lap, as on the backstretch Greg Biffle's #16 Subway Ford and Kasey Kahne's #9 UAW/Dodge Dealers Dodge slammed the wall, Jeff Gordon just avoiding becoming involved. The race stayed green and Earnhardt held off Harvick to win, but behind Elliott Sadler was spun on the infield, flipping upside down in an only slightly less impressive version of his big crash 12 months earlier at Talladega, tumbling just once this time. "I'm okay mum, wasn't half as bad as last year," he quipped for the TV crews.

Safely back in pit road, Gordon was philosophical. "I love and hate this place," he said. "You can be leading one minute, in a big wreck the next. We had to take what we could get," while in victory lane Earnhardt was rather more enthusiastic. "That car was awesome," he said. "I came down pit road, the caution came out, we shouted two tyres and we smoked them guys that were on old tyres. That's five wins here, I just can't believe it. But my daddy won here 10 times so I got to do a bit more."

After all the confusion Harvick was second, and Dale Jarrett came from nowhere to put his #88 UPS Ford into third, while rookie Gaughan's gamble paid his first ever top five, in fourth ahead of Busch.

All of which leaves Earnhardt in the lead of the Chase to the Cup, 13 points ahead of Busch and 61 clear of Gordon. But with seven races still to go there's no chance to rest, they're off to Kansas next weekend - the full story will be on crash.net...