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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)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet SS races to win Sunday, September 28, 2014 in the Chase Challenger 16 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway in Dover, Delaware. Gordon advances to the Contender 12 phase of the Chase which begins next Sunday at Kansas Speedway.  (Photo by Gregg Ellman/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet SS celebrates his victory with his daughter, Ella Sofia Sunday, September 28, 2014 in the Chase Challenger 16 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway in Dover, Delaware. Gordon advances to the Contender 12 phase of the Chase which begins next Sunday at Kansas Speedway.  (Photo by Gregg Ellman/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet SS celebrates his victory win Sunday, September 28, 2014 in the Chase Challenger 16 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway in Dover, Delaware. Gordon advances to the Contender 12 phase of the Chase which begins next Sunday at Kansas Speedway.  (Photo by Gregg Ellman/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway on September 28, 2014 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo Credit: Sarah Glenn/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Wurth Ford, races Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway on September 28, 2014 in Dover, Delaware.  (Photo Credit: Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet, crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway on September 28, 2014 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo Credit: Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway on September 28, 2014 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet, leads Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway on September 28, 2014 in Dover, Delaware.  (Photo Credit: Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet, pits during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway on September 28, 2014 in Dover, Delaware.  (Photo Credit: Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet, and Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, lead the field to the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway on September 28, 2014 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo Credit: Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #54 Monster Energy Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series Dover 200 at Dover International Speedway on September 27, 2014 in Dover, Delaware.  (Photo Credit: Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #54 Monster Energy Toyota, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series Dover 200 at Dover International Speedway on September 27, 2014 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #54 Monster Energy Toyota, crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Nationwide Series Dover 200 at Dover International Speedway on September 27, 2014 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo Credit: Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway on September 26, 2014 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet SS qualified for sixth position Friday, September 26, 2014 for Sunday`s Chase Challenger 16 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway in Dover, Delaware. Gordon is in the Chase. Sunday will determine who advances to the next phase of the Chase, the Contender 12.  (Photo by Alan Marler/HHP for Chevy Racing)

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