From Zero to Hero

Boy, how one week makes a difference. After coming off one of his worst showings in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s brief NASCAR career he bounced back to win the Golden Corral 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Earnhardt took the lead on lap 310 of 325 and powered across the finish line 4.584 seconds ahead of runner-up Jeremy Mayfield. After being threatened by NASCAR of being black flagged for running to slow last week at Las Vegas, Earnhardt was flying around the fastest track in NASCAR. He started the race 7th and stayed near the front the entire race and only fell out of the top 10 once. It was Earnhardt's 11th career victory and his 5th on a non-restrictor plate track. Earnhardt has already won a restrictor plate race earlier in the year, when he won the season opening Daytona 500. "Last week was as bad as it ever gets,'' Earnhardt said. "But we didn't get on each other too bad, and we stayed pretty focused.'' That is something relatively new for Earnhardt and the Bud Crew. In the past tempers flared after such a showing. In theand Tony Jr. would have ensued into a hellacious cussing match,'' Earnhardt said. past, me

"We would have really been at each other's throats. And Tony Sr. probably would have punched me in the face. It would have just been nasty.''
Earnhardt was also proud of his team and the job they did in the pits, he was especially proud of Tony Eury Jr.
"I don't want to talk bad about Tony Jr., but his batting average hasn't always been that high as far as his adjustments during the race. He was great today."
Pole winner Ryan Newman led the first eight laps before Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart took turns at the top. Stewart's pace in the No.20 Chevrolet was so quick, it left just 17 cars on the lead lap as the drivers passed the 100-lap mark.
One of those down a lap was points leader Matt Kenseth. Kenseth made his first big error of the season while entering pit road on lap 57. He spun the No.17 Roush Ford and was assessed a drive-thru penalty that left him in 34th-place.
Rookie sensation Kasey Kahne moved through the field and was second to Stewart. The two dueled for 50 laps, until Kahne's pit crew missed a lug nut costing Kahne 13 positions.
Meanwhile, Kenseth had once again shown his championship mettle by driving his Ford back to 14th place by lap 143. He was still a lap down, but the lead car of all the backmarkers. When a caution came out six laps later, Kenseth got the free pass to the lead lap.
At the halfway point, it was Stewart (who led 113 of the first 163 laps), followed by Greg Biffle, Casey Mears, Newman and Earnhardt Jr.
Just after that, Mears and Newman went to the front and Stewart fell back to third. Following a small incident with "Junior" which damaged his left-front spoiler, Stewart dropped to eighth.
With 100 laps to go, Newman was at the front of the pack, with Mayfield in second place and "Junior" in third. Kenseth, was back up to eighth place.

Following a caution on lap 248 for Jamie McMurray's blown engine, Mayfield beat Newman out of the pits and grabbed the top spot. Lap 266 saw Earnhardt Jr. pass Mayfield for the lead.
Following their final green-flag pit stops, Mayfield held the lead over Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt Jr. and Kahne. Five laps later Junior powered past Johnson then underneath Mayfield for the lead. He expanded his lead over the final 10 laps from 1.6 seconds to the final four-and-a-half second margin.
"I'm really proud of my guys," said Mayfield, whose last top-five came at Rockingham last fall. "We didn't make any mistakes and the guys did a really good job on pit road. We just came up a little bit short to him (Earnhardt Jr.)."
Rookie Kahne finished third followed by Johnson and Newman.
For Kahne it was his third consecutive top-five finish. Newman was the last rookie to accomplish that feat, finishing second twice and then winning at New Hampshire in September 2002.
"We were loose all day long, we just got a little too tight at the end, but a good day for Evernham Racing, said Kahne.
Kenseth, who finished his comeback in sixth place, continues to lead the championship with 673 points. Stewart (591) is second, 82 points back. Earnhardt Jr.'s win (583) vaulted him from seventh to third place in the overall standings. Kahne (550) and Gordon (543) complete the top-five.
The next race in the Nextel Cup title chase is scheduled for Sunday, March 21st at the Darlington Raceway for the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400. Earnhardt has bounced back but can he maintain his consistency?

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