TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) – Dale Jarrett ended a 98-race drought by winning at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, while Tony Stewart reclaimed his spot on top of the Nextel Cup standings and Jimmie Johnson’s reputation and championship hopes were damaged.

Jarrett used a three-wide pass to challenge Stewart for the lead on the final lap of a three-lap overtime shootout, then passed Stewart on the backstretch in the UAW-Ford 500 for his first victory since 2003 at the now-defunct North Carolina Speedway.

Kyle Petty spun to bring out a caution before the leaders crossed the finish line, freezing the field. NASCAR then had to review tape to establish a final finishing order.

Stewart finished second, Matt Kenseth was third and Newman fourth.

The finish put Stewart back on top of the Chase for the championship leaderboard after the third of 10 races. He holds a four-point advantage over Newman – who originally thought he was the new points leader – after a race that shuffled the Chase standings.

Johnson, who started the day as the points leader, was involved in two accidents and dropped to fourth in the standings – 98 points back.

Talladega is the wild card of NASCAR’s 10-race championship hunt. Because drivers are forced to use horsepower-sapping restrictor plates, the cars all run in one tight pack and the slightest bobble is capable of wiping out half the field.

So it’s the one track where the 10 Chase drivers started the race knowing their title hopes could be crippled before the day was over.

When the dust settled, at least five Chase drivers suffered some sort of accident-related damage and Johnson’s track record at Talladega had taken another huge hit – this time for a wreck he was involved in 20 laps into the race.

It was here that Johnson started a 25-car accident in April that led Dale Earnhardt Jr. to call him an “idiot” and start a rash of backlash against Johnson’s perceived aggressive driving.

This time, Johnson ran into the back of race-leader Elliott Sadler’s car, igniting a frightening eight-car accident that sent Michael Waltrip flipping down the track.

Although the drivers involved widely blamed him for the accident, Johnson wasn’t positive he was at fault. He believed he was pushed into Sadler when Earnhardt ran into the back of Johnson.

Either way, he knew his reputation was taking a hit.

“It’s real easy to sit on your couch and point fingers and say “So-and-so did something wrong,’ ” Johnson said. “But until you are out there in these cars, at these speeds, and seeing all the near-misses and what is really going on, it is not worth forming an opinion.”

Johnson’s accident ended the race for Chase driver Mark Martin, whose car was totaled. Martin came into the race fourth in the standings, but dropped to ninth after the race.

Johnson’s was in a second eight-car accident that started when Newman hit Casey Mears.

That accident damaged the cars of Chase drivers Rusty Wallace and Greg Biffle.

Both were able to get back on the track to run for points, but Biffle knew it was fruitless.

“We’ll just try to get as many points as we can and hope that Ryan makes a few more wrecks and we can gain some positions,” Biffle cracked.

Stewart, meanwhile, climbed four spots in the standings after dropping out of the lead last week. He had spent seven weeks as the points leader before slipping to fifth coming into Talladega.

For Jarrett, it was a victory that proved he may be on track to turn his slumping program around. He was reunited with old crew chief Todd Parrott just last week and the two proved they still have chemistry.

The two clicked from the start of their relationship, winning their very first race together, the 1996 Daytona 500.

They went on to win 26 races, including a second Daytona 500, and the 1999 championship. But Parrott left at the end of the 2002 season and Jarrett has run through seven crew chief changes since.

AP-ES-10-02-05 1854EDT


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