Dale Earnhardt Jr claimed his first non-restrictor plate Winston Cup victory since September 2001 in Sunday's Checker Auto Parts 500 at the Phoenix International Raceway by out running Jimmie Johnson and the rest of the field in a nine-lap shootout.

The #8 Budweiser Chevrolet driver led the final 50 laps of the 312-lap event for his second win of the season and although Matt Kenseth made another major stride towards his first Winston Cup title, Earnhardt Jr and his crew were delighted with their victory.

Kenseth drove a masterful race, dodging a record ten caution periods to move from 37th on the grid to sixth at the finish and despite Earnhardt Jr's maximum score, the #17 DeWalt Roush Racing man goes into next weekend's penultimate round at Rockingham 228 points ahead of the DEI driver.

Johnson boosted his own credentials for a shot at second spot in the final points table by putting up a fierce fight against Earnhardt Jr for 20 laps before ceding the lead despite having to keep one eye on his fuel gauge. However as three late caution periods slowed the action considerably in the final 45 laps, Johnson was able to turn up the pressure for the final nine-lap green flag run to the finish, although by that time it was too late to stop the #8 machine.

Finishing third after several physical battles with, amongst others Earnhardt Jr and Jeff Gordon, was Bud Pole winner Ryan Newman while Kurt Busch drove from 22nd to fourth in the final 75 laps after paying the price for inferior fuel mileage in the #97 Roush Ford.

Michael Waltrip put his recent bad run behind him with a strong run to fifth position, narrowly holding off Kenseth in the waning laps as the Champion-elect enjoyed one of his most competitive days of the last month. There were plenty of scares for the DeWalt sponsored driver, not least when Tony Stewart, Rusty Wallace, Kevin Harvick and Bobby Labonte crashed just yards ahead of the points leader on lap 226 while scrapping madly for 10th position.

The turn two shunt spelled the end of Harvick's title bid and dropped the Richard Childress Racing driver to sixth in the points table, more than 350 adrift of Kenseth after he finished 15 laps down in 34th position.

Jeff Gordon failed to lead a lap in his bid for a third consecutive victory but was a front-runner all day in the #24 DuPont Chevrolet and crossed the line in seventh position, one spot ahead of double Phoenix winner Jeff Burton, who overcame a puncture.

Scott Wimmer finished an excellent ninth in his second start for the #22 Bill Davis Racing CAT squad ahead of veterans Mark Martin and Sterling Marlin. Jamie McMurray took another step towards the Raybestos Rookie of the Year title with a 12th place finish while Brian Vickers ran inside the top ten for most of the day in just his third ever Winston Cup start before falling to 13th at the finish.

Tony Stewart made multiple pitstops to repair the damage caused in the lap 226 crash, triggered when the pursuing Wallace tapped the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet into a spin, but could only recover to 18th position while the combination of a record number of caution periods and the new 'Lucky Dog' rule meant an unusually high 29 drivers finished on the lead lap.

Among those who failed to go the distance were Jeremy Mayfield, Casey Mears, Jeff Green and Kyle Petty who all blew engines while Jimmy Spencer also blew a motor to trigger his lap 168 accident in turn three that also eliminated Ward Burton.

 

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