Spend time with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and it's always clear why his fans are so fond of him. He's usually thoughtful, candid and funny.

For instance, Junior praised Jeff Gordon, who has tied his late father in career race wins (76).

Junior thought that Gordon's waving a large No. 3 flag on his victory lap at Phoenix Saturday night was a classy tribute to his father. Junior was disappointed that some Earnhardt fans disapproved of the gesture and threw trash on the track.

"I'm surprised that anyone would be offended," Junior said on a Tuesday conference call. "Hello, he was waving a [No.] 3 flag. When he honored my father, that was really cool. That was a lot of class."

Junior was one of the first to congratulate Gordon.

"I think it's the responsibility for somebody from my side of the family to tell Jeff we appreciate it," Junior said. "If we don't say anything, then Jeff's going to wonder if we liked it or disliked it.

"I do what I think I would want done to me in that situation. That's how I react to everything basically 90 percent of the time."

Words to live by . . .

With the next Nextel Cup race at Talladega on Sunday, Junior was reminded about Gordon's winning a race at the super-fast speedway that ended under caution. Junior fans reacted by throwing beer cans at Gordon's car.

"That's nasty," Junior said. "[They should] go out in the parking lot and wale a couple beer cans at [their] cars. Don't throw them at my car or anybody else's. Get some toilet paper. It's hell to clean up, but it won't hurt anybody."

Junior also talked about his older sister, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, who is handling his negotiations for a new contract with Dale Earnhardt Inc. Junior has said he won't agree to a new deal unless he receives at least 51 percent of the company his father founded. Dale Sr.'s third wife, Teresa, now owns DEI.

When Junior was a child, Kelley helped raise him. She is president of JR Motorsports and has a business degree from the North Carolina-Charlotte.

"She knows Teresa, she knows the company really well," Junior said. "I don't have any worry of my sister being able to get the job done. I like challenging my sister with those type of responsibilities.

"[As a child] there were a lot of gaps she filled when it comes to parental guidance and what's right or wrong. She helped me a lot. I'm just trying to show her appreciation. She's obviously very talented. I'm lucky to have a caliber of person like her in my camp."

While Junior said there's nothing new to report in the negotiations, he added, "I'm pretty excited that things will work out."

Asked whether concerns about a new deal are a distraction, he replied, "It's not a distraction, because nothing's been going on."

He noted that this is a waiting period in the negotiating.

"I get worried that the story's going to become stale and old," he said. "One of my favorite shows is 'Around the Horn' on ESPN. They were talking about it. I know it's getting old when 'Around the Horn' is debating whether it's getting old."

When Junior finished the race at Texas 2 weeks ago in Kyle Busch's car, it fueled speculation that he was using the ride with Hendrick Motorsports as leverage in his negotiations with DEI. (Busch left the garage area, because he thought his damaged car would be parked the rest of the race.)

"I learned that he hurt his wrist and back real bad," Junior said. "He was at the infield care center.

I did it because it's fun. Also, I can deal with the power they've got in their motors and go back to my guys [with information]. I can feel the attitude of their car and how the car reacts in the corners."

Hendrick puzzled

Rick Hendrick, Jeff Gordon's car owner, also was impressed by Gordon's waving the No. 3 flag.

"Sometimes I don't understand the fans," Hendrick said. "Jeff was trying to pay tribute to a great champion, a fallen champion, at a time when it all could have been about Jeff winning that race."

Illustrating what an impact racer Gordon is, the semi-retired Bill Elliott is the closest to him, with 44 wins. Mark Martin, racing a limited schedule this year, is next with 35.

Montoya fined

Juan Pablo Montoya is now a bona fide NASCAR racer. He's been fined and placed on probation.

Making an obscene gesture following practice last week at Phoenix will cost Montoya $10,000. The gesture was caught on live television. He's also on probation until the end of the season.

The former Indy car and Formula One racer, a NASCAR rookie, insists he was having fun with a friend. "I really feel bad that the incident happened," he said.

THIS WEEK'S RACE

Aaron's 499

Talladega Superspeedway

Talladega, Ala.

When: Sunday, 2 p.m.

TV/Radio: Fox/WXTU (92.5-FM)/WNPV (1440-AM)

Race course: 2.66-mile oval

Race distance: 188 laps

Last year's race winner: Jimmie Johnson

Last year's pole winner: Elliott Sadler, 188.511 mph

Track qualifying record: Bill Elliott, 212.809 mph (April 1987)

Track facts: Chevrolet drivers have won 15 of the last 16 races at Talladega. Dale Jarrett, driving a Robert Yates Ford, is the only non-Chevy winner during that span (2005) ... Earnhardts have won 15 races at the track: Dale Sr., 10; Junior, 5 ... In winning last year's race Johnson led only three laps. Tony Stewart was runner-up; Brian Vickers was third ... Stewart has six second-place finishes at Talladega (zero wins) ... Vickers won the fall race at the track.

Wins: Jimmie Johnson, 3; Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, 1 each.

Up next: Crown Royal Presents the Jim Stewart 400, May 5, Richmond International Raceway, Richmond, Va., 7:30 p.m.; TV: Fox.

NEXTEL CUP STANDINGS

Last WeekSeason

StandingPoints Margin

1. Jeff Gordon. . . 11326-

2. Jeff Burton. . . 21252-74

3. Matt Kenseth. . . 31166-160

4. Jimmie Johnson. . . 41115-211

5. Denny Hamlin. . . 51084-242

6. Kyle Busch. . . 71002-324

7. Tony Stewart. . . 9994-332

8. Carl Edwards. . . 8967-359

9. Clint Bowyer. . . 6963-363

10. Mark Martin. . . 11921-405

11. Kevin Harvick. . . 14902-424

12. Jamie McMurray. . . 10899-427

13. Kurt Busch. . . 15868-458

14. Greg Biffle. . . 17850-476

15. Dale Earnhardt Jr.. . . 18843-483

16. Juan Montoya. . . 13831-495

17. Elliott Sadler. . . 16817-509

18. David Stremme. . . 12813-513

19. Bobby Labonte. . . 23780-546

20. Martin Truex Jr.. . . 19774-552

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