TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) – Dale Earnhardt Jr. can do no wrong at Talladega at least as far as the fans are concerned.

It seems most of the 150,000 or so NASCAR aficionados who show up twice a year for Nextel Cup races at the big Alabama track are rabid Junior fans.

Each time their hero’s red-clad No. 8 Chevrolet whizzes by, thousands rise to their feet like a mini-wave, throw their hands in the air, pump their fists and exult. When Little E takes the lead, the roar rivals the sound of a 747 flying close overhead.

The sound that emanated from the vast grandstands late Sunday afternoon when a mistake by Brian Vickers took out both Jimmie Johnson and race leader Earnhardt half a lap from the finish of the UAW-Ford 500 was different.

It was a collective gasp, a murmur and then a cascade of boos.

Instead of Earnhardt getting his sixth Talladega victory, Vickers was declared the winner, getting his first career win. Earnhardt and Johnson were relegated to 23rd and 24th, respectively.

After taking the checkered flag, Vickers drove back to the tri-oval grass, in front of the main grandstand, and began doing victory doughnuts. The crowd screamed its disapproval, many throwing beer cans and other trash toward the celebrating winner.

Shades of the spring race in 2004 when Jeff Gordon was declared the winner after NASCAR ruled he was just ahead of Earnhardt when a late caution flag ended the race. Gordon’s car was pelted with garbage and he was booed lustily in Victory Lane, much as Vickers was on Sunday.

That 2004 finish led NASCAR to introduce its overtime rule, allowing for a two-lap shootout if a caution flag waves in the last few laps of regulation.

This time, the accident happened on the 188th and last lap, so, under NASCAR’s rules, there was no overtime – just a lot of unhappy Earnhardt fans.

Neither Gordon nor NASCAR were too happy with Earnhardt before the crash, either.

Gordon, who finished 36th after getting caught up in an 11-car crash in lap 138 that had nothing to do with Earnhardt, still spent some of the time while his crew repaired his battered Chevy complaining about Little E’s bump-drafting.

That’s the “art” of ramming into the rear bumper of the car ahead of you to gain momentum for a pass, particularly at Talladega and Daytona, the only tracks where NASCAR requires restrictor plates to slow down the cars. The plates also make it hard for anyone to break out of the pack or make a pass on their own.

In Daytona last February, bump-drafting got so out of hand in the preliminary events that reigning Cup champion Tony Stewart warned someone could be killed if NASCAR didn’t reign it in.

The sanctioning body heeded Stewart’s warning, saying it would start policing bump-drafting, particularly in the turns.

Gordon said the bump-drafting was again out of control on Sunday, particularly by Earnhardt.

“The thing I don’t understand is that NASCAR has been talking about bump-drafting for I don’t know how many times we’ve come here and to Daytona,” the four-time Cup champion said, “and they said it in the driver’s meeting (Sunday) and they weren’t doing a thing about it out there.”

Asked about Earnhardt, in particular, Gordon said, “That guy seems to be able to run into the back of people harder than anybody else. He’s a great drafter. I love racing with him but, man, does he run into the back of people.”

NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said, “We didn’t see any excessive bump-drafting on the racetrack today. I know Jeff had some comments, but we didn’t see anything we had to react to.”

But Earnhardt’s crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., said his driver was warned about the bump-drafting several times during the race and, at one point, Little E asked him to get a clarification from NASCAR what was considered bump-drafting and what was considered pushing.

When told about that, Gordon said, “Well, whoever is making that call from NASCAR, I will put a passenger seat in my car and they can ride with me and tell me what they think the next time.”

Earnhardt shrugged off the criticism.

“There is so much grip here, my mom could drive these cars. So there wasn’t no way I was going to spin anybody out. But I guess it makes Jeff Gordon a little nervous,” Junior said.

“I pushed (him) into the lead five times and every time I do that he complains that I’m bump-drafting him in the corners and blah, blah, blah. So I’m just not going to push him any more.”

Earnhardt acknowledged, though, he did change his ways after the final warning from NASCAR.

“Yeah, I just stopped,” he said. “I knew at the end of the race they would be really watching close.”

It would have been ironic if a bump-draft had taken Earnhardt out, but it was simply a mistake, with Vickers sending Johnson into the No. 8 as he tried to help push his teammate past Earnhardt for the win.

But, thanks to the problems experienced by Gordon and others in the 10-man Chase for the championship, Earnhardt remained sixth in the standings and gained 17 points on leader Jeff Burton. He trails by 106 points heading to Martinsville next week.

“I think we can still race hard and see if we can’t close the gap a little bit,” Earnhardt said. “Something like this can happen to the next guy just as easy as myself. But I’ve got some people I’m pulling for if I don’t win.”

It’s doubtful Jeff Gordon is one of them.


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