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THERE'S PLENTY TO PROVE FOR DALE JR. AT TALLADEGA

A victory today in the EA Sports 500 (1 p.m., Ch. 2; noon, Radio 1330, 1340) at Talladega Superspeedway would go a long way toward validating Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s win at Daytona in July.

That triumph was a fairy-tale ending to a story that began in tragedy five months earlier, when Dale Earnhardt was killed in the season-opening Daytona 500.

The outcome of the Pepsi 400 -- the first race at Daytona since the death of the seven-time Winston Cup champion -- led to talk that Earnhardt Jr. had been given some sort of engine advantage by NASCAR.

Both NASCAR and Little E have denied collusion, and the evidence from the three restrictor-plate races run this season supports the driver's contention that he simply has a strong car at the two tracks where horsepower is limited by the rules.

He finished second in the race in which his father died, and was sixth in the spring at Talladega.

"I'm looking forward to the race," Earnhardt said Saturday before the final practice.

An eight-car wreck, which didn't involve Earnhardt, marred that session. Jeff Purvis bumped Ward Burton to start the melee. Terry Labonte, John Andretti, Rusty Wallace and Ken Schrader were forced into backup cars for the EA Sports 500, and will have to go to the rear of the field.

What might happen at the front is of more interest to Earnhardt, however.

"I feel like we've got just as good a car as at Daytona," he said. "But they're two different tracks. At Daytona, I had the car really freed up and I could beat the guys through the corners. Here, you can't really do that.

"If I do have a car as good as Daytona, it might not be as evident, but we're going to see if it will be strong enough to keep it up front all day long."

The race will be the first in which all drivers must wear some form of head and neck restraint. This week, NASCAR mandated use of either the HANS or Hutchens device, a response to the death of the elder Earnhardt and three other drivers in the last 17 months.

The last holdout was Tony Stewart, who balked at using a restraint system, but went to a Hutchens device after venting his anger Friday at NASCAR officials.

On Saturday, Bobby Gerhart won the ARCA Food World 300 under caution when Jason Jarrett brought out the yellow flag by running out of gas with three laps to go.

Jarrett was running third when his tank went dry on 110th of 113 laps. His Pontiac came to rest on the apron of turn two, bringing out the caution flag.

The race never restarted, and polesitter Gerhart went on to earn his second career ARCA victory.

Bob Strait finished second, Rick Carelli was third, Andy Kirby fourth and Richard Mitchell fifth. Tina Gordon finished 10th in her first career start at Talladega.

Gerhart dominated the race, leading 105 of the laps.

"I felt pretty good about our chances there at the end before the caution," Gerhart said. "It was a wonderful day for all of us."

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