OK, Earnhardt fans, you've had your chances. It's time to turn thumbs-down on those knuckleheads who threw beer cans and junk at Jeff Gordon's race car after he won Sunday at Talladega and passed the late Dale Earnhardt in career wins.

If these fans won't listen to Dale Earnhardt Jr., they are hopeless.

Following Gordon's victory a week earlier at Phoenix, which tied him with Earnhardt at 76 wins each, Earnhardt fans also tossed beer cans at Gordon's Chevrolet.

Two days later, Dale Jr. appealed to these "fans" not to do it again. Junior said the cans could hurt some innocent bystanders.

So what happens? The Earnhardt fans at Talladega ignore Junior and strike again on what would have been Dale Sr.'s 56th birthday (he died in a last-lap accident at the 2001 Daytona 500). Even if these people don't read newspapers, they should know better.

Think Dale Sr. would be pleased about these classless reactions by his fans?

Earnhardt ruled the Cup series when Gordon started winning regularly. At first, Earnhardt resented this young racer, because he was winning too much. Later, they developed a mutual respect.

Gordon holds Earnhardt in the highest regard.

"I respected Dale [Sr.] so much and learned so much from him," Gordon said after winning at Talladega.

Earnhardt fans don't have to like Gordon, but they should respect his accomplishments. His 77 wins are the sixth highest all-time in the Cup series.

Repeating what we mentioned last week: The next highest win totals among active drivers are 44, by Bill Elliott, and 35, by Mark Martin; both are racing limited schedules this season.

I love the passion of NASCAR fans and their affection for their favorite drivers, but that passion must be under control for NASCAR racing to be considered on a level with football, baseball and basketball in the national sports consciousness.

A tip of the ol' restrictor plate to Talladega officials who permanently banned 14 "fans" who were arrested for throwing beer cans at Gordon's car from buying tickets to future Talladega races. How the track officials will prevent these people from buying tickets through friends isn't known. But at least the track made it clear it doesn't want these kinds of fans at races.

Gordon's heard from

Another sign that Gordon has achieved statesman status in the garage area was his speaking up at the drivers' meeting before the Talladega race.

After NASCAR president Mike Helton said there is a fine line between bump drafting and aggressive driving, Gordon said: "I absolutely don't think there is a fine line. We're not able to mandate it ourselves. You guys have to mandate it, because we've got the adrenaline flowing."

Gordon didn't like what he observed in the Busch race at the Alabama superspeedway Saturday.

"[It] was out of control," he said. "You had guys slamming into one another through the corners and just doing silly things. I didn't hear it addressed. So it was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing. I just had to say something."

Good for him. For a long time, Dale Earnhardt was someone other drivers could take their racing troubles to, knowing Earnhardt could speak with NASCAR officials. Now it appears Gordon has inherited that leadership role.

Stewart still puzzling

We hope Tony Stewart won't stop speaking out on NASCAR-related issues. But he has to be smarter and not compare NASCAR to pro wrestling, as he did on his radio show last week when he said caution periods are set at the end of races to favor certain drivers.

Although Stewart has harnessed his temper, he still is a complex person.

He was genuinely happy for Bobby Labonte after his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate passed him on the final lap to win the Busch series race at Talladega.

The next day, understandably upset with rookie David Gilliland for bumping him late in the Cup race, Stewart referred to Gilliland as a "no-talent."

Racing is a tough business, but that's a needlessly cruel remark. Stewart said he later spoke with Gilliland, who assured the two-time Cup champion that the hit wasn't intentional.

Drivers fined

Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray were fined $25,000 each and placed on probation until Oct. 3 for making contact during a caution period at Talladega.

Jim who?

For anyone wondering why Saturday night's Cup race at Richmond is named the Crown Royal Presents the Jim Stewart 400 . . . Stewart, 34, (no relation to Tony) is a NASCAR fan from Louisiana who won a contest asking for a memorable occasion. He related stories about fishing with his father. *

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