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SONOMA — Dale Earnhardt Jr. was not only dominating NASCAR headlines entering the Toyota/SaveMart 350. If it weren't for LeBron James and Jerry Sandusky, he may have dominated all other sports stories.

Junior's victory at Michigan a week ago in the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet ended a four-year drought and suddenly cast America's most popular driver back into the spotlight. He was credited with spiking ticket sales in Sonoma by 20,000 earlier in the week.

Alas, Earnhardt's joyride didn't last long. He started 19th on Sunday, finished 23rd and seemed to race a bit passively all day. To finish off his effort, Earnhardt was collected in a multi-car accident after the final restart and wound up driving a battered car into the pit area.

"We weren't good all weekend," he said. "We've got to put a better car on the racetrack. I mean, I ain't the best road course racer out there, but I can damn sure do better than that. So we've got to pick up the race car a little bit."

Earnhardt fell from second to third in the overall Sprint Cup standings, and is 14 points behind leader Matt Kenseth.

LaRUSSA GIVES HIMSELF THE SWING SIGN

Former Oakland A's, St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago White Sox manager Tony LaRussa served as grand marshal for the Toyota/Save Mart 350. He is known as one of baseball's great strategists and, off the diamond, as the co-founder (with wife Elaine) of the Walnut Creek-based Animal Rescue Foundation.

But when LaRussa spoke to the media before the race, it didn't take long for the talk to turn to performance-enhancing drugs. He managed two of the players most closely associated with steroids, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire.

"I don't understand being inconsistent," LaRussa said. "People are talking about, &‘This guy said he did it, but he's gonna be a Hall of Famer, and these guys did it and they've got no chance.' ... If you don't want Mark in, don't put any of 'em in."

LaRussa is doing some work with the baseball commissioner's office, but generally has a lot more free time since retiring right after taking the Cardinals to the title last year.

"I started out on the porch, just wanted to watch the sun coming down," LaRussa said. "And my wife put a suitcase by the door. And I didn't understand. Then she put it on the porch: &‘We don't want you around during the summer.' So then I've been traveling."

THIS ONE'S ON JJ

Jennifer Weiss used guts and cunning, caught some luck and came away with a big check. Sounds a lot like auto racing.

Weiss submitted an on-line application for funding from the Jimmie Johnson Foundation on behalf of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Sonoma County, which she runs along with her husband, Jason. The organization started with three clubs serving 300 children four years ago. When they open seven more as planned in August, it will bring the total to 24 clubs and about 3,000 kids receiving low-cost (or in some cases no-cost) childcare, educational activity, and recreation.

Johnson's foundation received more than 4,000 nominations, and Weiss' pitch was good enough to make it into the top 10. Chance took over from there as Johnson, who drives the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet, picked their entry out of a helmet.

Sunday, about 90 minutes before the green flag waved, Johnson presented the Weisses with an oversized check for $10,000. About 20 club kids and their families were there to enjoy the moment.

"We have a new favorite driver," Jennifer Weiss said.

NOTES

"It was a tough day for Juan Pablo Montoya, the 2007 winner. He was hit with three separate infractions - pitting before the road is open, driving below minimum speed and not having a team member in contact with the outside tires. Montoya also lost use of his tachometer, making it hard to gauge pit speed.

Attendance was estimated at 91,000.

The race took 2 hours, 39 minutes and 55 seconds. Winner Clint Bowyer's average speed was 83.624 miles per hour.

Martin Truex Jr., a teammate of Bowyer's, led 15 laps but finished 22nd after getting involved in a late accident.

Local celebs watching the race included 49ers tackle Joe Staley and Santa Rosa restaurateur Guy Fieri.