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AVONDALE, ARIZ.—A fuel gamble in Saturday night’s Subway Fresh Fit 500 allowed Jimmie Johnson to get his first Sprint Cup win of 2008. The defending Cup champion nursed his No. 48 Chevrolet across the finish line a little more than seven seconds ahead of Clint Bowyer.
Danny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, points leader Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr., Greg Biffle and Kyle Busch rounded out the top-10 finishers.
After all the other contenders except Bowyer had pitted for fuel in the closing laps, crew chief Chad Knaus instructed Johnson to pit with eight laps remaining in the 312-lap race. But after another brief discussion, Knaus changed his mind and radioed to Johnson, “Screw it. We'll go for it.”
Knaus spent the remaining eight laps slowing Johnson down, because none of the other drivers had time to catch up. As Johnson entered turn-3 on the final lap, Knaus ordered him to “put it in neutral!”
Johnson took the victory but had to be pushed to victory lane after his fuel tank finally ran dry.
The win ended an eight-race dry spell for Johnson, winner of 10 races in 2007.
Mark Martin saw victory slip away after he was called into the pits for fuel with 10 laps remaining.
At the time of his final pit stop on Lap 302, Martin was enjoying a comfortable lead on the one-mile oval after passing Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Lap 273. But unfortunately for Martin, his No. 8 U.S. Army Chevrolet was in need of fuel to make it to the checkered flag.
“You hate to see it come down that way,” said Martin, who led a total of 68 laps. “But you also don’t want to run out of fuel with one lap to go and finish 20th in a race that you’ve been up front the entire time. Again, it was a great run, and this is a great race team. It won't be our last chance to win.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has now gone winless in 70 races, ran up front most of the night, but like other teams, he decided to pit for fuel late in the race.
“We were running good, but right there at the end, I think I just drove the tires off it,” Earnhardt said. “I was losing ground.
“Jimmie’s crew told us they were going to try and make it on fuel. For us, it was too much of a gamble just to try for second place. We did the smart thing and came in. He already had us beat on the track.”
There was little flash for Tony Stewart. He started the race 12th, flirted with the top-10 for much of the event and wound up 14th.
Top-12 Chase Contenders after 8 of 36: 1. Burton-1215, 2. Kyle Busch-1135, 3. Earnhardt-1129, 4. Johnson-1116, 5. Harvick-1115, 6. Hamlin-1078, 7. Stewart-1057, 8. Bowyer-1044, 9. Edwards-1041, 10. Biffle-1039, 11. Kahne-929, 12. Newman-915.
Top-10 Nationwide Series leaders after 8 of 35: 1. Bowyer-1189, 2. Edwards-1165, 3. Kyle Busch-1083, 4. Ragan-1068, 5. Reutimann-1065, 6. Keselowski-1011, 7. Bliss-998, 8. Harvick-977, 9. Leffler-962, 10. Bires-926.
Top-10 Craftsman Truck Series leaders after 4 of 25: 1. Kyle Busch-645, 2. Bodine-610, 3. Hornaday-580, 4. Setzer-578, 5. Crawford-576, 6. Crafton-539, 7. Starr-534, 8. Darnell-527, 9. Benson-501, 10. Cook-499 .
DALE EARNHARDT’S RACE TO THE TOP
After his father died at age 45, Earnhardt dealt with his grief and got back on the track as quickly as he could. It’s hard to say whether his rise to fame would have been easier with his father’s help.
Dale’s attitude was race as fast as you can, go to the front and damn the consequences. Even though he had a wife and two babies, he was always able to get enough money to race.
“Racing cost me my second marriage for the things I took away from my family,” he said in a 1995 newspaper article.
His first Winston Cup race was the 1975 Memorial Day 600 at Charlotte. He drove a Dodge for Ed Negre and finished 22nd. Another new driver, Richard Childress, was 23rd. Negre did not have the money to continue funding a car for Earnhardt to drive, so it ended up being a one-race deal.
After the 600-mile race at Charlotte, he hung out at other garages, drove his own Sportsman car and looked for another ride. He had two more races in 1976 and one in 1977.
By the end of 1977, his second marriage was gone. He had to return to his mother’s house and live in a trailer in her back yard.
Early into the 1978 season, a California car owner named Rod Osterlund was looking for another driver. Dave Marcis was the current driver. He had many top-10 finishes, but Osterland wanted to win races.
Earnhardt was his man. After signing on with Osterland, Earnhardt ran two races in 1978, finishing second in Charlotte and fourth at Atlanta.
Earnhardt finally had someone behind him with the money needed to win.
On April Fool’s Day 1979, he led 160 laps at Bristol for his first and only win of the year.
In the fifth race of the 1980 season at Atlanta, he won by nine seconds over Rusty Wallace. At Bristol, he won over Darrell Waltrip by eight seconds.
The 1980 battle for the championship went down to the last race of the season at Riverside, Calif., between Cale Yarborough and Earnhardt. When the checkered flag was given, the title belonged to Earnhardt. He finished the season just 19 points ahead of Yarborough.
Just two years after being hounded by creditors, his 1980 winnings amounted to $588,926.
Earnhardt approached Richard Childress in 1981. Wrangler was the sponsor on his car, but Earnhardt wanted out of his racing deal with car owner J. D. Stacey.
“When it was over, I was in debt $150,000,” Childress said in the book ‘Intimidator.’ I was in worse shape than I was to start with. Wrangler came back and helped us out, but I had to hock and finance everything I had to make it work.”
That was the beginning of one of the most successful partnerships, as well as friendships, in the history of NASCAR racing.
In 1986, Earnhardt won his second Winston Cup championship and the first for Richard Childress.
The following year, he won back-to-back titles for his third crown overall.
His fourth title in 1990 was controversial as runner-up Mark Martin forfeited 46 points earlier in the season due to a rule infraction. Earnhardt won by 24 points.
In 1991, he finished with four wins and 21 top-10s for his fifth title.
He clinched his sixth championship in the final race of the season at Atlanta.
His seventh and last title, which tied him for the most championships with Richard Petty, came in 1994.
Just before the 2001 Daytona 500 race had ended, Earnhardt was gone. He died after sliding up and hitting the outside wall.
His fans still remember him. He meant a lot to so many people.
Petty Racing at the crossroads.
The only racing next weekend is the Sunday road race in Mexico City for the Nationwide Series. It will be televised on ESPN beginning at 1:30 p.m. (EST). Starting time: 1:30 p.m. The Sprint Cup and Craftsman Truck teams have an off-weekend.
Racing Trivia Question: Which team does Alan Gustafson crew chief for?
Last Week’s Question: Does Richard Childress plan on adding a fourth Cup team in 2009? Answer. Yes, he will add a fourth team. It has not been decided who the driver will be, but the sponsor is going to be General Mills.
GERALD HODGES is a Beacon correspondent. You may contact the Racing Reporter at: firstname.lastname@example.org.