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Phoenix: Dale's dominant desert run.

By Andrew Charman

One week ago Dale Earnhardt Jr felt he had let his team down badly by misjudging a passing move with just 15 laps to go and crashing out, throwing away a pile of championship points. This week he made up for it with a dominant performance in the Checker Auto Parts 500 mat Phoenix, in the surprisingly rain-swept Arizona desert . But Kurt Busch recovered from an early spin to finish in the top 10 and retain the championship lead with just two races left.

Ryan Newman was looking to turn his fourth straight pole into a win and the #12 ALLTEL Dodge duly led lap one of 312, the start brought forward due to the threat of late afternoon rain. Rookies Brian Vickers and Kasey Kahne, in #25 GMAC Chevrolet and #9 UAW/Dodge Dealers Dodge respectively, led the early chase, while on the move was title contender Dale Earnhardt Jr, the #8 Budweiser Chevrolet having started the day third in the standings and 14th on the grid but moved up to fifth by lap 20. As for series leader Kurt Busch, his #97 Irwin Ford was trying to recover from a 28th start spot, up to 17th by lap 25.

On lap 41 Earnhardt passed Kahne for second and set off after the leader, three seconds up the road. Within 10 laps, however, Newman could see the red Chevrolet getting bigger in his mirror. Coming upon a line of traffic didn't help, and Earnhardt took advantage to snatch the lead on lap 60. Kahne remained third ahead of Tony Stewart's #20 Home Depot Chevrolet, while moving forward fast too was the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet of championship second place holder Jimmie Johnson, up to fifth from 13th and looking to cut a 59-point deficit to Busch.

The first caution flew on lap 75 when Hermie Sadler's #2 Treasure Island-Las Vegas Chevrolet ran out of fuel and stopped on the track. Earnhardt led Newman and Kahne out from the pit stops but the big gainer was Busch, leaping to fourth spot. At the green on lap 81 Earnhardt immediately restored a gap to Newman, as Busch pressured Kahne for third, taking the spot on lap 95. A few laps later a few spots of rain fell, just as the yellow appeared again when Matt Kenseth's #17 DeWalt Ford dumped its left rear tyre on the raceway.

Several teams played the strategy card, two-tyre only stops putting five cars ahead of Earnhardt, but as light rain continued to fall the cars were brought back down pit road to a halt. Some 21 minutes later the engines cranked up again, Elliott Sadler's #38 Pedigree Ford and the #24 Dupont Chevrolet of Jeff Gordon leading back to green on lap 115. In trouble was early leader Newman, what Ryan thought was a flat tyre sending him back to pit road. Two laps later the yellow flew again as John Andretti got high and wiped the rear end of his #14 VB/APlus at Sunoco Ford along the wall.

At the green on lap 124 Gordon hung onto Sadler and took the lead, along with a very important five bonus points. Once in front the Dupont Chevrolet was able to open a gap, until the caution flag flew again for a multiple pile-up which left five cars across the track including both title leader Busch and fourth-placed Mark Martin. Remarkably both got away with no serious damage, though both needed four new tyres.

Gordon again pulled away at the lap 133 restart as team-mate and title contender Jimmie Johnson hit trouble, giving up ninth spot with a suspected flat tyre which like Newman's earlier, proved not to be. Within 10 laps the yellow was back out as Scott Riggs' #10 Valvoline Chevrolet tagged Ken Schrader's #49 Schwan's Home Service Dodge and spun. Leaders Gordon and Sadler led a line of cars to pit road, but not Earnhardt who regained the lead ahead of another 10 who also stayed out.

The green flew six laps shy of halfway, Earnhardt getting away from closest challengers Kahne and Greg Biffle in the #16 National Guard Ford. But caution number six came quickly, on lap 155 when a cut tyre sent Sadler on a damaging ride along the wall. Earnhardt resumed in the lead at the 160 restart, while two who had benefited from all the yellows were Busch, back up to seventh place, and Kenseth, taking third from Biffle.

This time the race ran unhindered long enough to spark a series of green flag pit stops, Kahne the first of the leaders in on lap 200. Earnhardt pitted on lap 203, and Busch got a lap in the lead and those five extra points before making his stop, almost losing out as the Irwin Ford ran out of fuel entering pit road. Just as Kurt exited Terry Labonte's Kellogg's Chevrolet was tagged into a hard hit with the pit wall, sparking the seventh caution with some cars yet to make their fuel stops.



Related Pictures

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Dale Earnhardt Jr dominated the day at Phoenix (Photo, GM Media).
No wonder Earnhardt Jr looks happy, victory at Phoenix put him right back in the title race (Photo: GM Media)
Despite a tough day title race leader Kurt Busch recovered to finish 10th at Phoenix (Photo Autostock/Ford Motor Co)
Jeffrey Earnhardt, driver of the #55 Fronius USA/Viva Auto Group Chevrolet, spins out during the NASCAR XFINITY Series Hisense 250 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on February 28, 2015 in Hampton, Georgia.  (Photo Credit: Rainier Ehrhardt/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Ryan Newman, driver of the #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet SS qualifies in seventh position Friday, February 27, 2015 for Sunday`s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Alan Marler/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS finishes in fifth place, Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet SS finishes in 33rd place in the Daytona 500 Sunday, February 22, 2015 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. Gordon, who led for 87 laps,  was involved in a multi-car incident on the last lap. (Photo by HHP/Harold Hinson for Chevy Racing)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS races to a third place finish with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS who finishes in fifth place in the Daytona 500 Sunday, February 22, 2015 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by HHP/Alan Marler for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet, and Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet, lead the field to the green flag for the running of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 57th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 22, 2015 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo Credit: Robert Reiners/Getty Images)
Hendrick Motorsports team mates (left) Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet and (right) Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet celebrate in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Budweiser Duel 1 at Daytona International Speedway on February 19, 2015 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Danica Patrick, driver of the #10 GoDaddy Chevrolet, is involved in an on-track incident with Ryan Newman, driver of the #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet, and Brian Scott, driver of the #62 Shore Lodge Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Budweiser Duel 2 at Daytona International Speedway on February 19, 2015 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, takes the chequered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Budweiser Duel 1 at Daytona International Speedway on February 19, 2015 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Budweiser Duel 1 at Daytona International Speedway on February 19, 2015 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet, and Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, lead the field to the green flag for the running of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Budweiser Duel 1 at Daytona International Speedway on February 19, 2015 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, lead a pack of cars during practice for the 57th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2015 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo Credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, stands in the garage area during practice for the 57th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2015 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet SS, captures the Daytona 500 pole for the second time in his career Sunday, February 15, 2015 after posting the fastest qualifying time for next Sunday`s NASCAR Sprint Cup race in Daytona Beach, Florida. Gordon, who has said this is his last full season of racing, has won the Daytona 500 three times. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS, qualifies second and will also start from the front row. (Photo by HHP/David Tulis for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet SS, captures the Daytona 500 pole for the second time in his career Sunday, February 15, 2015 after posting the fastest qualifying time for next Sunday`s NASCAR Sprint Cup race in Daytona Beach, Florida. Gordon, shown with his team and crew chief, Alan Gustafson, said this is his last full season of racing. Gordan has won the Daytona 500 three times. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS, qualifies second and will also start from the front row. (Photo by HHP/Harold Hinson for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet SS, is congratulated by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS, after capturing the Daytona 500 pole for the second time in his career Sunday, February 15, 2015. Gordon posted the fastest qualifying time for next Sunday`s NASCAR Sprint Cup race in Daytona Beach, Florida, which he has won three times. He has said this is his last full season of racing. Johnson qualifies second and will also start from the front row.(Photo by HHP/Harold Hinson for Chevy Racing)

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