There's nobody better at a game of high-speed chess than Dale Earnhardt and he outfoxed the field Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, holding off Dale Jarrett to win the Winston 500.
To get to that point, though, the seven-time Winston Cup champion had to come from 27th place in the 43-car field.
It took the 48-year-old drafting master just five laps to get into the top five, shouldering his way through traffic in a breathtaking 190 mph display that made him a contender the rest of the way.
Earnhardt led only 18 of the 188 laps, but got in front for the final time on lap 185 and was able to stay ahead of a ferocious 20-car lead draft to the checkered flag.
With all 170,000 spectators on their feet and roaring, Earnhardt weaved up and down the high-banked oval, somehow staying in front of Jarrett. Earnhardt's black No. 3 Chevrolet beat Jarrett's red, white and blue No. 88 Ford to the flagstand by .114 seconds about 2 car-lengths.
"I just sort of played chess with them and kept them two-by-two behind me," said Earnhardt, who swept both Talladega races this season and now has earned nine of his 74 career victories on the longest and fastest oval in NASCAR.
"They played it just right for me. If they had been more patient, they could have got back in line and got back around me. But, today, I made the right moves and got the right breaks."
Ricky Rudd finished third, followed by Ward Burton, Kenny Wallace, rookie Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte.
Burton was the highest finisher among the five drivers eligible for a $1 million bonus had they won on Sunday.
But this day belonged to crowd favorite Earnhardt, who won for the third time this season.
"This car was good," he said. "But I didn't think it was a car that was going to run up front. Even late in the race, I didn't think I had the car to win it, but (Bobby) Labonte and (teammate Mike) Skinner worked with me there at the end and help me to the front."
Earnhardt came from farther back than any previous winner at Talladega. The previous record was 18th by Mark Martin in 1997.
The key moment came on lap 140 when Earnhardt drove into the pits with a group of leaders for a regularly scheduled stop. Just as they reached pit road, Terry Labonte's car began leaking and smoking from a punctured oil reservoir, bringing out the last of three caution flags.
All the drivers but Earnhardt, Bobby Labonte and Ward Burton kept right on going throgh the pits and back onto the track. But those three stopped and all three wound up finishing in the top seven.
"I just played my cards right," Earnhardt said. "I felt the guys who stayed out would slow down and not race to the flagstand, and I felt we could get tires, get to the start-finish line before they came around and get track position."
"I knew we didn't have to beat them around, just to the start-finish line to take the yellow."
The strategy worked, with Earnhardt taking the green flag on lap 146 in third, moving into the lead for the first time on lap 147 and staying in contention to the end.
Jarrett, who came into the race with a 222-point lead over Bobby Labonte in the season standings, was far back in the pack until the late going. But it appeared he had the strongest car over the final 80 laps.
He led for the first time on lap 114 and looked like he might be on top for good when his Ford moved into the lead for the final time on lap 175.
"They were running two-wide back there and I was trying to find a way to block them all," Jarrett said. "You can't do that. Dale Earnhardt's just the best at this kind of racing."
"I could have caused a big wreck, but we're in a championship race."
Jarrett's second-place finish, combined with Bobby Labonte's seventh-place finish, boosted his series lead to 246 points with four races remaining.
Earnhardt, who won $120,290, averaged 166.632 mph in a race slowed by just 17 laps of caution.
With the cars slowed by carburetor restrictor plates in Talladega and Daytona in the interest of safety, the fields typically remain bunched throughout the day. That virtually guarantees at least one big wreck, and Sunday was no exception.
On lap 81, with several lines of cars racing four-wide into the first turn, several cars bumped, igniting a five-car crash involving Rich Bickle, Derrike Cope, Johnny Benson, John Andretti and Jerry Nadeau. None of the drivers was injured.
Jarrett, who was still buried deep in the field at that point, barely avoided the incident.
There were 32 leads changes among 16 drivers. Thirty-eight of the 43 starters were running at the end, with 21 on the lead lap and the first 20 separated by 1.994 seconds at the finish.
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