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NASCAR: Next stop for Gordon: Talladega, aka Earnhardt Nation

Under the lights at Phoenix last week, race winner Jeff Gordon tied the legendary Dale Earnhardt with 76 career Cup wins. To honor the Intimidator, Gordon carried a flag of Earnhardt's famous "3" on his victory lap. He was met with a host of chee...

Under the lights at Phoenix last week, race winner Jeff Gordon tied the legendary Dale Earnhardt with 76 career Cup wins. To honor the Intimidator, Gordon carried a flag of Earnhardt's famous "3" on his victory lap. He was met with a host of cheers, a few boos - and some beer cans aimed at him.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was one of the first to victory lane to congratulate Gordon, adding the honor was "cool" and admonishing those throwing cans.

"I was blown away that anybody would even take what Jeff did wrong and be offended," Earnhardt said.

Sunday's Aaron's 499 Nextel Cup race is at Talladega Superspeedway, the site of a memorable - in a bad way - incident involving Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. in 2004.

A race-ending caution flew with four laps to go while Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon were side-by-side for the lead. When NASCAR awarded Gordon the lead, and ultimately the win (after reviewing video and scoring data), debris literally rained onto the track and the cars from the stands.

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Earnhardt takes umbrage to that incident now.

"The first time it happened (2004), it was funny," Earnhardt said. "Then I heard later that people got hit in the head. You could see it on TV. If a full beer can doesn't make it to the track, hits somebody - maybe an innocent fan, maybe it's a female or a child - that's ridiculous."

Gordon's car owner, Rick Hendrick, guesses the unruly behavior comes from fans who don't like his driver winning, which has happened on average once every 6.3 races since Gordon's Cup career began with the final race of the 1992 season.

"You know, usually when people don't like somebody, there is a reason," Hendrick said. "I've never kind of figured out the reason other than he was a winner because he's given back so much.

"If he hadn't won any races, I wonder how many people would like or dislike him."

There is concern that should Gordon win Sunday's race, it could spawn a repeat of 2004. Senior and Junior's plate-racing prowess has made the 2.66-mile superspeedway a home field for Earnhardt Nation. Earnhardt Sr. was immensely popular at Talladega, where he won a record 10 races, five more than his son.

"I better carry a flag there, too," Gordon said. "They might not throw things at me. I think I might just carry the flag around for the whole race."

Gordon and Earnhardt are favorites to race for the win, despite getting shut out at plate races in 2006. Both teams - Hendrick Motorsports and DEI - build strong restrictor-plate cars and engines.

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Gordon, who sits atop the points standings, has 10 plate victories, finishing in the top 10 about half the time. Four of those plate wins are at Talladega, three in the spring race.

Earnhardt won half of the 14 plate races from July 2001 to October 2004, including four straight at Talladega.

Should Gordon win Sunday, Earnhardt says it should be all about Gordon now, not his father.

"I think if he wins, it will be a typical celebration," he said. "He tied (Dad), he recognized that. I think he closed the door on that.

"He can't feel obligated to continue to relate everything back to my father."

As for the beer-hurling fans?

"If you're unhappy with it, throw some toilet paper," Earnhardt said. "It's hell to clean up, but it won't hurt anybody."

Fast facts

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What: Aaron's 499.

Where: Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

When: 1 p.m. Sunday.

TV: Fox, 12:30 p.m.

Radio: MRN/Sirius Satellite.

Track layout: 2.66-mile trioval.

Race distance: 188 laps/500 miles

2006 winner: Jimmie Johnson.

2006 polesitter: Elliott Sadler.

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