AVONDALE, Ariz. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. kept his slim Winston Cup championship hopes alive Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway.
Earnhardt passed Jimmie Johnson for the lead with 51 laps remaining in the Checker Auto Parts 500 and stayed out front through a series of restarts in a race featuring a 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 him to the finish by 0.735 seconds — about five car-lengths — in a showdown of Chevrolets.
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.
“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.”
Kenseth started 37th in the 43-car field and worked his way to the front, battling Michael Waltrip for fifth late in the race.
“I wish I could qualify better than I do,” Kenseth said, “but I feel good about where we finished and I feel good about where the points are with two races to go.
“We were racing hard with Michael. If we had raced any harder, we’d have crashed, and we couldn’t afford that.”
Ryan Newman, who started from the pole, finished third, and Kurt Busch was fourth.
The victory was Earnhardt’s second of the season and the ninth of his career. Five of the nine 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. He is the son of the late seven-time Winston Cup champion, Dale Earnhardt.
“It feels so good to be in Victory Lane,” he said. “It feels good to prove to people we’re just not a restrictor plate team.”
Earnhardt led three times for a total of 87 laps.
He was fourth, trailing Johnson, Waltrip and Mark Martin on a restart on lap 238, but got to second place in only 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.
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 came 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.
“It just seems like we’re behind the eight ball and all the bad breaks keep going against us,” Busch said. “We felt we had to come in and top off. We didn’t think there was going to be any more yellows, which there were plenty of.”
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.