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Talladega triumph boosts Earnhardt

Dale Earnhardt Jr. charged from 11th place to victory and the series points lead in the last five laps of yesterday's NASCAR Nextel Cup race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

Although he was at or near the front virtually throughout the EA Sports 500, leading a race-high 78 of the 188 laps, Earnhardt fell behind when crew chief Tony Eury Sr. decided to gamble on two fresh right-side tires on his final pit stop.

Other drivers got ahead of Earnhardt by staying on the track or taking only fuel on their final stops during the last of five caution periods. But it made little difference once the green flag waved for Lap 184.

"Those brand new rights just drove around the corners so much better than those other guys with old tires out there," Earnhardt said. "I wasn't worried. They make the calls in the pits and I just drive the car."

Earnhardt had a streak of four straight Talladega wins stopped in April when he finished second to Jeff Gordon in a somewhat controversial finish, with NASCAR determining that Gordon was leading when a yellow flag waved and froze the field. The race finished that way under caution to the displeasure of the fans.

"I'm just glad to get back on top at Talladega," Earnhardt said. He drew a roar from the partisan crowd when he added, "This is my place."

His 14th career victory and fifth of the season also moved Earnhardt from third in the standings to a 13-point lead over Kurt Busch, who finished fifth. Gordon, who came into the race with a one-point lead over Busch, finished 19th and fell to third, 61 points behind after three of the 10 races in NASCAR's new 10-man playoff-style championship.

IRL -- Adrian Fernandez won a one-lap sprint to the finish in the Toyota 400 at Fontana, Calif., nosing out Tony Kanaan, whose runner-up finish was good enough to clinch the Indy Racing League series point title. Fernandez outdueled Kanaan over the final trip around the 2-mile oval after a restart following a caution flag.

The victory was the second in a row, third of the year -- and third in the last five IRL events -- for the native of Mexico.

Fernandez led 18 laps and averaged 178.826 m.p.h. and was only a blink -- .0183 seconds -- in front of Kanaan at the end of the 400-mile event at California Speedway.

Dan Wheldon, second behind his teammate in the points standings, finished third, with two-time defending champion Sam Hornish fourth.

Reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Buddy Rice was fifth, followed by Dario Franchitti. Pole-sitter Helio Castroneves was seventh after leading 145 laps.

Kanaan, running his string of top-5 finishes to 14, needed only to finish fourth to wrap up the points championship -- but he came up just 3 feet short of winning the race.

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