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Earnhardt stays in the hunt

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was having fun at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday, and that was bad news for the rest of the field.

"My car just drove so good, I could pass and race with whoever I want to," Earnhardt said after winning the Checker Auto Parts 500, keeping his slim Winston Cup championship hopes alive.

Earnhardt passed Jimmie Johnson for the lead with 51 laps left and stayed out front through a series of restarts in a race marred by a track record-tying 10 caution flags.

The final restart came nine laps from the end of the 312-lap race on the 1-mile oval. Earnhardt easily pulled away from Johnson, beating the second-place car to the finish by 0.735 seconds, about five car-lengths, in the battle of Chevrolets.

"This was fun. We've been pretty good all year and we've improved in a lot of places," Earnhardt said. "We've got a lot of guys who have been with us and some new guys and, if we keep everybody next year, we're going to win a championship. If we don't win it this year, we're going to win it next year."

Matt Kenseth, the series points leader, finished sixth but saw his lead over second-place Earnhardt cut from 258 to 228 points. Kenseth can wrap up his first title by finishing in the top 30 in the final two races.

If he retains a lead of at least 186 points Sunday at Rockingham, Kenseth will win the championship. If he leaves Rockingham between 152 and 185 points ahead, all he will have to do is start the season finale Nov. 16 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to win the title.

But Earnhardt isn't conceding anything.

"It's all going to boil down to finishing strong the rest of the year," Earnhardt said. "It's going to be not having any troubles and still collecting points."

Kenseth started 37th in the 43-car field and worked his way to the front, battling Michael Waltrip for fifth place late in the race.

"I wish I could qualify better than I do, but I feel good about where we finished and I feel good about where the points are with two races to go," said Kenseth, who has led the series since the fourth race of the year.

"We were racing hard with Michael. If we had raced any harder, we'd have crashed and we couldn't afford that," added Kenseth, who backed off in the last few laps.

Ryan Newman, who started from the pole, finished third, followed by Kurt Busch and Waltrip.

The victory was Earnhardt's second of the season and ninth of his career. Five have come at Daytona and Talladega, where NASCAR requires carburetor restrictor plates to sap horsepower and keep the cars under 200 mph.

This was Earnhardt's first win at a non-restrictor plate track since taking the fall race at Dover in 2001.

"It feels so good to be in Victory Lane," said the son of the late seven-time Winston Cup champion. "We wanted to show that we're just not a restrictor plate team.

"We've been wanting to win one of these for a long time. We've come so close a bunch of times and finished in the top five a lot. They gave me a great car today and I could just pass and do whatever I want. It's just a great day."

Earnhardt led three times for a total of 87 laps.

He was trailing Johnson, Waltrip and Mark Martin on a restart on Lap 238 but got to second place in three laps and began to stalk Johnson, finally slipping below the leader in the third turn and grabbing the top spot on Lap 262.

"I thought I was going to be able to stay out front of him, but he was just coming on too strong and there was nothing I could really do," Johnson said. "I knew he was fourth and I thought it was going to take him longer to get by those guys."

Earnhardt said patience after getting to second place was a key to the win.

"I was just sitting there and waited behind Jimmie," he said. "I patiently waited and waited and he got easier and easier to catch. I didn't want to burn myself up trying to keep up with him, and it finally came to me."

Busch led a race-high 98 laps and appeared to have the strongest car throughout the day.

He was leading when a caution flag came out on Lap 229 for a crash that involved defending series champion Tony Stewart, Rusty Wallace, Bobby Labonte and Kevin Harvick, who went into the race third in the points.

Without enough gas to finish the race, Busch pitted, the only leader to do so, and fell to 22nd. He charged back toward the front and was chasing down Newman for third when time ran out.

Johnson moved to third in the standings, trailing Kenseth by 241 points. Johnson's teammate, four-time champion Jeff Gordon, coming off two straight wins, finished seventh and took fourth in the standings, 300 points behind the leader.

Harvick finished 34th and fell to sixth in the standings, 351 points behind Kenseth and out of the running for the 2003 title.

GEARHEAD STATS

TIME OF RACE: 3 hours, 19 minutes, 11 seconds.

MARGIN OF VICTORY: 0.735 seconds.

CAUTIONS: 10 for 66 laps.

LEAD CHANGES: 10 among six drivers.

LAP LEADERS: R. Newman 1, J. Johnson 2-38, D. Earnhardt 39, R. Craven 40, K. Busch 41-85, D. Earnhardt 86-120, K. Busch 121-173, R. Newman 174-213, K. Lepage 214, J. Johnson 215-261, D. Earnhardt 262-312.

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