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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)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, and Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet, lead the field at the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 13, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Erik Jones, driver of the #51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Camping World Truck Series car (Photo Credit: NASCAR)
Erik Jones, driver of the #51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Camping World Truck Series car (Photo Credit: NASCAR)
Erik Jones in action in the #51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Camping World Truck Series car (Photo Credit: NASCAR Via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, right, poses with Miss Coors Light Rachel Rupert and the Coors Light Pole Award after qualifying for the pole for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 11, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire.  (Photo Credit: Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet, lead a group of cars during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway on July 6, 2014 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #54 Monster Energy Toyota, and Kevin Harvick, driver of the #5 Kroger/P&G Chevrolet, lead the field on a late restart during the NASCAR Nationwide Series John R. Elliott HERO Campaign 300 at Kentucky Speedway on June 27, 2014 in Sparta, Kentucky. (Photo Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet, left, talks with Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts at Kentucky Speedway on June 27, 2014 in Sparta, Kentucky.  (Photo Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #51 Dollar General Toyota, leads a pack of trucks during the NASCAR Camping World Series UNOH 225 at Kentucky Speedway on June 26, 2014 in Sparta, Kentucky. (Photo Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #51 Dollar General Toyota, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Camping World Series UNOH 225 at Kentucky Speedway on June 26, 2014 in Sparta, Kentucky. (Photo Credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #51 Dollar General Toyota, crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series UNOH 225 at Kentucky Speedway on June 26, 2014 in Sparta, Kentucky. (Photo Credit: Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #51 Dollar General Toyota, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series UNOH 225 at Kentucky Speedway on June 26, 2014 in Sparta, Kentucky.  (Photo Credit: Rainier Ehrhardt/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Panasonic Chevrolet SS, races to second place Sunday, June 22, 2014 in the Nascar Sprint Cup race at Sonoma Raceway in Sanoma, California. Gordon leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. (Photo by Christa L. Thomas/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet SS, races to win Sunday, June 15, 2014 in the Nascar Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. It was Johnson`s third win of the year and first at Michigan International Speedway.  He is second in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. With him is Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS, who finished thirteenth. (Photo by Alan Marler/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Holding his son, Keelan, Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet SS, won the pole position Friday, June 13, 2014 for Sunday`s Nascar Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. Harvick is 12th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. Chevy`s Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet SS will join him on the front row. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)

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