Dale Earnhardt Jr. pulled away from Jeff Gordon in a pair of overtime laps to win the NASCAR Nextel Cup race Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale, Ariz., and tighten the championship chase with two races to go.
Kurt Busch overcame a couple of mistakes to finish 10th and held on to the series lead. But the top four drivers are separated by only 48 points heading into next Sunday’s event at Darlington with Busch leading Gordon by 41.
The victory came a week after Earnhardt lost ground in the title chase by crashing because of his own carelessness late in the race at Atlanta Motorspeedway. This time, he was steady when it mattered most.
Earnhardt, who had a dominant car through most of the Checker Auto Parts 500, was in third place, trailing Gordon and Casey Mears when a caution came out on Lap 282 of the race scheduled to go 312. Earnhardt argued with crew chief Tony Eury over the radio, lobbying to pit for tires, but Eury made him stay on the track and maintain his position.
Eury said he insisted that Earnhardt stay out because it was so hard to get past lapped cars on the one-mile oval and “it was just better to keep track position.”
Earnhardt was a bit sheepish when asked about the argument.
“Yeah, I was just getting worried, man,” he said, grinning. “I cannot control myself inside a race car. I want tires, this that and the other. I didn’t want to lose.”
After staying out during the caution, Earnhardt wound up passing Mears for second place on Lap 298, moments before another caution came out for Jamie McMurray’s wreck.
On the restart on Lap 303, Earnhardt swung his No. 8 Chevrolet to the inside of Gordon’s car, pulled alongside and shot into the lead.
“Gordon was a sitting duck there at the end,” Earnhardt said. “His car was terrible. He was lucky just to get what he got.”
Earnhardt began to pull away when Mears, with a tire going flat, spun into the wall, bringing out yet another yellow flag on Lap 307.
Moments later, Robby Gordon’s engine blew. NASCAR stopped the cars on track on Lap 310 as safety workers cleaned up the debris from Mears’ crash and the oil from Gordon’s engine failure.
Once the race resumed, NASCAR ordered one extra lap of caution, then finished with only the second green-white-checker overtime since the rule was adopted earlier this year to assure fans of seeing a racing finish.
Earnhardt easily pulled away once the green flag waved.
Ryan Newman, who struggled most of the day after starting from the pole, came on to grab second place from Jeff Gordon.
Kevin Harvick finished fourth, followed by rookie Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, Rusty Wallace, Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte and Busch.
A nervous but dominant Sebastien Bourdais overcame a spin and a sticky gearbox to win his first Champ Car overall title, beating Bruno Junqueira with a flag-to-flag victory in the Mexican Grand Prix at Mexico City.
“I’m really, really, really glad it’s over,” said the new champion from LeMans, France. “It’s a whole lot of pressure on a 25-year-old guy.”
Bourdais managed to win despite sliding on the 42nd lap. The slip cost him about 12 seconds of the lead he held over Newman/Haas teammate Junqueira.
Bourdais started on the pole and never trailed, charging to his seventh victory of the season although a ninth-place finish would have guaranteed him the championship.
“At some point it becomes a question of honor,” he said. “You want to win the race so badly.”
Bourdais scored 369 points to 341 for Junqueira.
In addition to the $750,000 championship money, he also won the $100,000 Corona Cup for most points in the year’s two Mexican races.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Nextel Cup series point standings with two races remaining (Sunday, Mountain Dew Southern 500 at Darlington, S.C.; Nov. 21, Ford 400 at Homestead, Fla.):
1. Kurt Busch...6,191
2. Jeff Gordon...6,150
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr....6,144
4. Jimmy Johnson...6,143
5. Mark Martin...6,089
6. Tony Stewart...6,049
7. Ryan Newman...6,041
8. Elliott Sadler...5,869
9. Matt Kenseth...5,855
10. Jeremy Mayfield...5,836
How points are awarded in NASCAR Nextel Cup races: Drivers who lead at least one lap during a race are awarded five bonus points, and the driver who leads the most laps earns an additional five bonus points. The points break down this way: winner, 180 points; second, 170; third, 165; fourth, 160; fifth, 155; sixth, 150; seventh, 146; eighth, 142; ninth, 138; 10th, 134; 11th, 130. Note: The driver finishing 12th earns 127 points, and each driver after that earns three fewer points than the driver ahead of him.