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.