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EARNHARDT'S TRACK RECORD INDICATES TODAY COULD BE THE DAY

Some people may have doubts that Dale Earnhardt is still a winner. The Intimidator himself is not one of them.

The seven-time Winston Cup champion is confident his 55-race winless string can end in today's DieHard 500 at Talladega Superspeedway (12:30 p.m., Ch. 4; 1 p.m., Radio 1520), a track where he has seven of his 70 career wins.

The 2.66-mile oval also is where Earnhardt was injured in a terrifying crash in July 1996, the last time this event was run. NASCAR switched the race to the fall this year in order to get it out of the heat of the summer, a move probably appreciated more by the 130,000 spectators expected today than by the drivers.

Earnhardt, 46, whose broken clavicle and collarbone have long since healed, has only affection for the biggest track on the Winston Cup schedule.

"I like to race here," said Earnhardt, who finished second to Mark Martin last April in the Winston 500. "My confidence level is so good, I know once the race starts, we'll be drafting and get right up there in the front and be one of the contenders to win."

In his last four starts, Earnhardt has finished eighth, second, second and third.

Earnhardt will start 12th in the 42-car field. He's not in the middle of the battle for the championship, which involves three drivers with four races remaining.

Jeff Gordon, who leads Mark Martin by 125 points, will start eighth. Martin is 31st in the field, and Dale Jarrett, 197 points back, will start 18th.

Ernie Irvan will be on the pole.

Villeneuve reinstated in Japan

SUZUKA, Japan -- Canadian star Jacques Villeneuve was reinstated in the Japanese Grand Prix after race officials accepted an appeal from his team over his disqualification.

Villeneuve will start from the pole position today.

Earlier in the day, Villeneuve moved a step closer to his first Formula One season title, edging two-time champion Michael Schumacher in qualifying.

Then Villeneuve was disqualified for ignoring a yellow flag. His team, Williams-Renault, appealed, and stewards reinstated him an hour later.

The stewards initially expelled Villeneuve because he ignored the yellow flag during a practice earlier Saturday and passed Jos Verstappen's Tyrrell-Ford, which was parked on the side of the racetrack for engine trouble.