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Gordon wins shootout after Earnhardt crash

Seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt escaped serious injury Sunday in a frightening crash during the rain-delayed, darkness-shortened Diehard 500 won by Jeff Gordon.

Earnhardt, 45, came away from the brutal accident with fractures to his left collarbone and his sternum. He was taken by ambulance to a Birmingham hospital _ about 40 miles away _ where officials said he would remain overnight for observation.

Gordon, the defending Winston Cup champion, won a five-lap shootout after the second red flag of the long afternoon and moved into the series points lead for the first time this season.

The 24-year-old driver was able to fend off a strong challenge from Dale Jarrett, who was the runner-up on Talladega's 2.66-mile oval for the third straight race.

The race, scheduled to go 188 laps, started nearly 3{ hours late because of rain, had another 23-minute rain delay and had a 15-minute red flag after the wild crash in which Earnhardt was hurt late in the race.

NASCAR officials informed the teams that the race would end five laps after the green flag was waved for the final restart.

Gordon, who has six victories this season and 15 in his brief Winston Cup career, was leading Jimmy Spencer and Jarrett when racing resumed on Lap 125. Jarrett moved into second in the first turn and drove past Gordon on the outside to take the lead in Turn 3.

But Gordon was able to hang onto second place and kept stalking the leader until he was able to get alongside in Turn 2 on Lap 127. With a little boost from third-place Jeff Burton, Gordon's Chevrolet Monte Carlo moved past Jarrett's Ford Thunderbird.

That's the way it stayed to the checkered flag at the end of Lap 129, with Gordon winning by about three car lengths _ 0.146 seconds. Mark Martin was third, followed by Ernie Irvan and Spencer. Burton slipped to seventh.

The worst of the two multicar crashes took out most of the top contenders and gave a big scare to the crowd estimated at 110,000 when it appeared Earnhardt might be badly injured.

It appeared he was lucky to walk away after his car slammed into the wall, soared into the air, came down on its roof and was hit first by Derrike Cope and then Robert Pressley.

It took a while to get Earnhardt out of his battered Chevy, and the tough second-generation racer shrugged off safety workers when they tried to put him on a stretcher. Instead, Earnhardt walked to the ambulance for the ride to the infield care center, giving workers a thumbs up as he hugged his aching shoulder.

The incident began when Irvan tagged the rear of race favorite Sterling Marlin's car as Marlin and Earnhardt battled for the lead. Marlin slid sideways and hit Earnhardt, sending him into the wall. By the time the chain reaction was over, the cars of Terry Labonte, Lake Speed, Brett Bodine, Ken Schrader, Wally Dallenbach Jr., Ward Burton and Greg Sacks all were rendered unusable, at least temporarily.

With the sun nearing the horizon, NASCAR put out a red flag while the mess was cleaned up. That's when it was decided to end the race early.

The racing often was spectacular, with upward of 30 cars battling for position at times in a massive lead pack. Six to eight cars would break away in single file at the front, but the rest of the field soon would reel them in.

Rain postponed the start by 3 hours and 23 minutes. When it finally did begin, the first nine laps were run under yellow to allow the 42-car field to help complete the drying process. Just as officials were getting ready to let them race, rain began again and the field was red-flagged on lap 10. That delay lasted 23 minutes. The green flag finally waved at 5:35 p.m.

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