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EARNHARDT BRINGS 'PASS INTERFERENCE' TO NASCAR

There are two ways Dale Earnhardt can win a race.

One is when speeds are limited by restrictor plates and nobody can pull away from anybody and drivers take turns helping each other draft. Many help Earnhardt, partly because he is a legend and partly because he needs the help.

The only other way Earnhardt can win is when he wrecks the driver who is about to. That's what Earnhardt did Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, spinning Terry Labonte, the certain winner, on the last lap.

The move was blatant. It was like watching an NFL receiver about to catch a game-winning pass in the end zone. But, oh, no, here comes a defender. And he's driving a black car with a No. 3 on the side. And he wallops the receiver, who drops the ball. And the officials don't call a penalty.

Substitute teachers are tougher on students than NASCAR is on Earnhardt. World Championship Wrestling officials are tougher on wrestlers than NASCAR is on Earnhardt.

Here's Earnhardt about to be pinned by Labonte. One, two, but wait, Earnhardt pulls out a foreign object -- nah, this is NASCAR, so the object would be American -- and whacks Labonte on the head and rolls on top of him for the pin and the win.

The controversy gives fans something to talk about, but it's terrible for the sport's image. The reason Winston Cup racing has become so popular is because it has moved out of the South and into the homes of folks who wouldn't know Junior Johnson from Ken Griffey Jr.

These are fans who were weaned on stick and ball sports, but have tired of labor disputes, holdouts and stars so removed they no longer seem real. They're mesmerized by the noise and the speed and drivers who at least seem like regular guys. And when Earnhardt gets away with an obvious cheap shot to win a race, the sport becomes less credible.

We like rules, you see. The reason the NFL returned to instant replay is because fans want rules enforced. What if Winston Cup had instant replay? Envision a NASCAR official walking to the microphone Saturday night after reviewing Earnhardt's last-lap move from several angles.

"Upon further review, we find that Earnhardt still cheated. And we're still not doing a thing about it. Black 3. Whoooo!"

Earnhardt fans are among the most loyal in sport, but maybe Bristol will jar them out of their stupor and convince them to climb off his bandwagon, the only bandwagon in racing with a restrictor plate. They could get on the Terry Labonte bandwagon, but Earnhardt would probably spin that, too.

There's always Jeff Gordon. Gordon is talented and personable and, as we learned last season, he doesn't cheat. And he has spent this season proving it.

How about Dale Jarrett or Mark Martin or Jeff Burton? Like your drivers old? Dave Marcis has plenty of space available.

Earnhardt fans, who are desperate for good news, claim that what their driver did is just racing. In related news, taking out a quarterback at the knees with a late hit is just football. Throwing a 94-mph baseball at a batter's head is just baseball. And pulling a chair up to the all-you-can-stuff-in-your-mouth buffet is just eating.

Since cheating worked for Earnhardt last Saturday, what's to stop other drivers from doing the same thing? Oh, yeah. A sense of fair play.

Also, some don't have to.

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