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Earnhardt completes winless season

| Monday, Nov. 19, 2007

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s final ride in his red No. 8 car was just like so many others this season.

That is, frustrating.

Earnhardt completed a winless farewell season with Dale Earnhardt Inc. on Sunday, finishing 36th in the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He moves to Hendrick Motorsports next season, leaving the company that bears his late father's name, and the goodbye seemed to be an emotional one.

"I guess I thought I'd be sadder. But I'm not," Earnhardt said. "I've still got these guys as friends. That's even better than the working relationship."

It would have been a storybook finish for Earnhardt to win his DEI farewell.

But this year was anything but perfect for NASCAR's most popular driver.

He didn't qualify for the Chase for the championship, managed only seven top-five finishes in 36 races and announced in May that he was leaving DEI after months of contentious negotiations with his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt.

"It's been hard, man. This whole year's been hard," Earnhardt said. "And I don't ever want to do it again. I just want to get happy. I want to get to where I'm in a good place and get to where I can run well and win races like I know I can, get around good people, quit having to deal with jerks and just set myself apart and get right."

He was involved in two early accidents Sunday, taking away any chance he had of reaching Victory Lane and ending what's now a 62-race winless drought.

He drove through the grass leaving pit road on lap 52, and Kyle Busch tapped Earnhardt's car on the left rear side -- sending the 8 for a spin.

And only five laps later, Earnhardt was hit again in the left rear by Jeff Burton, getting knocked into the wall and damaging his car a bit.

Burton's tough tap came with the drivers on the front straightaway -- facing west, as the sun was starting to go down. In Burton's defense, the visibility in that area was, at best, awful.

"Had a great car and got up to 11th," Earnhardt said. "Did you all see that• We were running good. And I got run over by a veteran on a re-start. I don't know what the hell that was. I'm so disappointed."

He meant with the race.

The same applied to his season.

"It's over and it's over," Earnhardt said. "Got to go do something else."

• Jimmie Johnson joined an elite list yesterday, becoming just the 10th driver in NASCAR history to win consecutive season championships.

He'll seek membership in a far-more-exclusive club next year.

Cale Yarborough is the only driver in history with three straight titles, those coming from 1976-1978.

The others who captured two straight crowns before missing out on the three-peat quest are Jeff Gordon (6th in 1999), Dale Earnhardt (2nd in 1995, 12th in 1992, 3rd in 1988), Darrell Waltrip (2nd in 1983), Richard Petty (2nd in 1976, 5th in 1973), David Pearson (23rd in 1970), Joe Weatherly (48th in 1964, the year he was killed in an early season crash at Riverside Speedway), Lee Petty (6th in 1960) and Buck Baker (2nd in 1958).

Yarborough was fourth in the 1979 standings, when he sought a fourth straight championship.

• Brian France dismissed rumors that he's planning to sell NASCAR and step down as chairman of the family business.

"I'm committed to my job for the foreseeable future, and that's years, not months," France said.

France, who replaced his father, Bill France Jr., as chairman during the 2003 season, has been portrayed as an absentee leader with a greater interest in buying an NFL franchise. Most recently, Internet reports said he was considering selling NASCAR to European interests.

"We're just not for sale. We can't be any clearer than that," he said.

France also called this season "a very good year" for NASCAR, but said the sanctioning body would review several aspects of the business, including the controversial rule that locks the top 35 cars in owner points into every race.

The Chase for the championship, which started in 2004 and was tweaked before this season, will not be changed, France said.

"We're going to see if we can make it a little more exciting," France said.

• Re-enacting a scene that's occurred thousands of times before, a father approached Dale Earnhardt Jr. before Sunday's Ford 400 and asked the driver to take a photo with his son.

Only this time, the proud dad was New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi.

Earnhardt happily kneeled next to Girardi's son, Dante, a few minutes before the prerace drivers' meeting. Earnhardt and Girardi chatted a bit as well, as a stream of other celebrities -- including former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis -- entered the tent.

"Congratulations about your job," Earnhardt told Girardi, who was hired as the Yankees' manager last month.

Girardi thanked him, telling Earnhardt he's "very excited" to get started.

NASCAR isn't a foreign concept to Girardi. When he managed the Florida Marlins in 2006, he kept a trophy on his desk from his winning a NASCAR fantasy league the previous year.

• Carl Edwards had a very long year.

He's not complaining, and is looking forward to another in 2008.

For the third straight season, Edwards ran dueling full schedules; he dominated the Busch Series this year on the way to the yearlong championship, and won three times on the Nextel Cup circuit as well.

In all, Edwards raced a NASCAR-career-high 73 times in 2007 -- 36 Nextel Cup events, 35 Busch races and even two in the Truck Series.

"The racing part is easy. I mean, I love it," Edwards said. "The time I get to do what I really love to do is then. So that part is easy. ... I still voluntarily take on more stuff, more marketing partners and things like that because we have got everything tidied up enough that I have extra time and energy."

SPARK PLUGS: Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani was at his third NASCAR race of the season, and told drivers in the prerace meeting that they compete in "the quintessential American sport." ... Entering the Ford 400, Matt Kenseth had finished 1,587 laps at Homestead without ever leading. He took the lead in Lap 4 on Sunday. ... Tony Stewart spun into the wall with about 14 laps to go, damaging the left front side of his Chevrolet and bringing the race's seventh and final caution flag. ... For the 15th straight year, the driver who entered the season's final race atop the standings wound up winning NASCAR's title. The most recent last-day shakeup was 1992, when Alan Kulwicki passed Davey Allison for the crown. It also happened in 1979, when Richard Petty passed Darrell Waltrip for his seventh and final title.

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