TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) – Martin Truex Jr. picked the perfect race to make his first Busch Series start of the season.

Truex, the two-time Busch champion who is now a Nextel Cup rookie, returned to his roots Saturday to win his third straight race at Talladega Superspeedway.

Driving a car owned by Dale Earnhardt Inc., Truex celebrated what would have been “The Intimidators” 55th birthday by giving the company yet another restrictor-plate victory. Earnhardt, who won 10 races at Talladega, was killed in a 2001 accident at Daytona.

“This is up there at the top of my wins,” Truex said. “It’s just a special day. Everybody at DEI, we kind of had this weekend penciled in our calendars.”

The entire weekend has been a tribute to Earnhardt, who was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame on Thursday night. DEI is celebrating his birthday with a celebration at their shop in Mooresville, N.C., and all of the company cars are sporting a black paint scheme that mimics Earnhardt’s old No. 3 Chevrolet.

“It’s just an honor to be associated with this whole thing,” Truex said. “To be part of the company he started, and able to carry it on to more wins. All this stuff for me is like a bonus.

“He was my favorite driver before I ever raced a car.”

Kevin Harvick finished second in a failed bid to stretch his Busch Series winning streak to three-straight races. He can jokingly blame the defeat on the return of car owner Richard Childress, who missed the past two victories while on safari.

“The first thing Richard said was, “I guess I should have stayed in Africa,”‘ Harvick said. “But its OK because this is the first time we ever finished this race higher than 16th.”

Harvick extended his lead in the series standings to 299 points over Clint Bowyer. Kyle Busch finished third, Brian Vickers was fourth and was followed by Greg Biffle to give Nextel Cup regulars the top six positions. Cup drivers have won all 10 Busch races this season.

Mark McFarland, who drives for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s new team, was the highest finishing full-time Busch driver at seventh place.

But the day belonged to Truex, who scored his 13th career victory. Four of them have come at either Talladega or Daytona, and this latest one proved that DEI is still a top contender at restrictor-plate tracks.

“I guess they still have those good cars sitting in the shop, and a good driver sitting in them,” Harvick said. “They have the cars that can win. They didn’t forget how to do it, that’s for sure.”

Truex starts 20th in Sunday’s Cup race and Earnhardt Jr., who is looking for a sixth Talladega victory, starts 27th.

Tony Eury Sr., DEI’s director of competition and Truex’s crew chief, said his secret for building good plate-race cars was simple. But the competition has closed the gap and winning on Sunday will be difficult.

“Restrictor-plate cars, you have to finesse em,” he said. “I tell the guys they have to talk to them, you have to love on it when you walk on by them. But it’s gotten harder. We’re not the best.

“I don’t think we were the best today, but we just beat em.”

The race was fairly uneventful for Talladega. Although there were four cautions, one was for debris and two were for single-car accidents.

The only big one involved Tony Stewart, who walked away unscathed after his car flipped onto its roof. Stewart, the defending Nextel Cup champion, was running in third when he drove into Kenny Wallace’s path and the two cars touched. The hit wasn’t hard, but enough to send Stewart’s car airborne.

“I take 100 percent responsibility for this one, I just drove in front of (Wallace’s) nose,” Stewart said. “I looked in that little side mirror and I thought I had enough room to get down, and I didn’t. I just clipped him.”

His Chevrolet landed on its roof near the start/finish line, and skidded several hundred feet toward the first turn. The car was also hit by rookie Danny O’Quinn, who couldn’t avoid Stewart during the 10-second slide.

“All I saw was Stewart upside down,” O’Quinn said. “I didn’t really have anywhere to go.”

It took medical personnel several minutes to get Stewart out of the car because it was upside down and at an awkward angle. Once out, he went to the medical care facility to be examined.

AP-ES-04-29-06 1813EDT