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Earnhardt Jr. wins in Winston debut

The rookie makes his first shot at NASCAR's all-star race a memorable one.

Satisfied a day earlier to even be included in The Winston, Dale Earnhardt Jr. became the first rookie to win NASCAR's all-star event Saturday night when he blew past Dale Jarrett with one lap to go.

Earnhardt was sixth when a multicar collision brought out a caution with eight laps to go. He told crew chief Tony Eury he couldn't win with the car he was driving and convinced him to put on four fresh tires.

The result was a much quicker car then the rest of the field, allowing Earnhardt to rapidly move through the traffic and pass Jarrett in Turn 4 .

Earnhardt then easily pulled away to pick up a $515,000 payout from the record $2-million purse.

"I was running real good, but we were tight and I told Tony I needed four tires," Earnhardt said. "We sat there and thought about it and thought about it and finally said, "We didn't come here to run second or third, let's take the tires.' "

Jarrett finished second, followed by Dale Earnhardt Sr., Jerry Nadeau and Jeff Burton.

Earnhardt Sr., the only three-time winner in Winston history, raced to Victory Lane to congratulate his son.

"I thought I could give Dale Jarrett some trouble and then I saw this kid running in my rearview mirror and couldn't believe it," Earnhardt Sr. said. "He is just something else."

Earnhardt Jr. made the field by winning two races this season. He's the only Winston Cup driver to win more than once, something he seems overwhelmed by.

The victories got him into The Winston, which was more than enough for him even after Lowe's Motor Speedway president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler picked him to win it last week.

"I didn't plan on winning The Winston, to be honest with you," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We were just happy to be running it. It's a prestigious race and I'd watched a lot of them from up there in the second-floor condo and just knew it was something I someday hoped to be a part of. I didn't care who won the thing."

Earnhardt Jr. overcame a series of early problems.

He was halfway down pit road for a stop during the first 30-lap segment when a caution came out on the track. He quickly drove out of the pits to avoid falling a lap down during the yellow flag.

He later brushed the wall in Turn 4 during the second 30-lap segment and thought his night was over.

"I don't know why I hit the wall, it was my fault," he said. "Then it got real tight and I thought to myself, "We had a race-winning car and now we don't.' "

It looked gloomy for him when the final segment, a 10-lap shootout, began. Jarrett took the lead from Bill Elliott on the first lap and was pulling away from the field.

But Steve Park and Joe Nemechek collided on the second lap, bringing out another yellow flag. That was when Earnhardt Jr. persuaded his crew to give him four tires when much of the field wasn't even bothering to pit.

"I was a little nervous after we did it because if I didn't win Tony would have been mad," he said. "But they listened and that's why I like Tony and them guys because they are gutsy."

Terry Labonte finished sixth and Rusty Wallace seventh. Elliott, the pole-sitter, finished eighth, but won both 30-lap segments to earn $100,000 in bonuses.

Park raced his way into the main event by easily winning the 30-lap Winston Open.

Park, who started fourth, passed Jimmy Spencer in Turn 4 of Lap 18 and quickly began to distance himself from the field. He beat Nadeau by about 20 car lengths.

Nadeau won the second 16-lap No Bull Sprint to claim the final spot in the Winston field.

Walkway collapses

Ten people were taken to hospitals, two with life-threatening injuries, after a concrete walkway over a highway in front of Lowe's Motor Speedway collapsed as fans left the race.

About 30 feet of the 15-foot-high walkway that spans U.S. 29 and connects the track to a parking lot collapsed at about 11:15 p.m. The bridge snapped at the center and was folded in half, lying on the road in front of the speedway.

Authorities were not sure how many people were injured.

"It is way too early to tell," said Sherry Wilson of the Concord Fire and Life Safety department. "We can't even get into the scene good at this time."

GEARHEAD STATS

TIME OF RACE: 37 minutes, 43 seconds.

MARGIN OF VICTORY: 1.295 seconds.

AVERAGE SPEED: 167.035 mph.

LEAD CHANGES: 6 among 5 drivers.

LAP LEADERS: Bill Elliott 1-30, Joe Nemechek 31-33, Jeremy Mayfield 34-38, Nemechek 39-54, Elliott 55-60, Dale Jarrett 61-68, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 69-70.

Up next:BIRTHS

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