Dale Earnhardt most likely only postponed the inevitable Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, beating Jeff Gordon by two places in the Dura-Lube 500k to keep the Winston Cup championship battle alive, barely.

While Ricky Rudd was coming on strong at the end to win the 500-kilometer (312-mile) race on the one-mile oval, Earnhardt came up with a third-place finish, while Gordon was fifth.Rudd earn his 16th career victory - his first since winning at Loudon, N.H., on July 10 1994 - and extended his string of seasons with at least one win to 13.

Meanwhile, Earnhardt was cutting into Gordon's point lead for the third straight race, slicing the margin to 147 with only the season-finale on Nov. 12 at Atlanta remaining.

Although it's not officially over for seven-time champion Earnhardt, the 24-year-old Gordon would need only to finish anywhere above last at Atlanta to win the title, even if Earnhardt wins the race and gets the five-point bonus for leading the most laps.

"I think we can do that," Gordon said happily. "I'm excited, but anything can happen. I really wanted to wrap it up here and we came close. I was real happy with this showing. I wasn't too strong at the beginning, but the crew did a great job and we got stronger toward the end."

Gordon said his Hendrick Motorsports team, also looking for its first season championship, will test on Atlanta's 1.522-mile oval next week.

"We won last time we were there (in March) and it's a good track for us," said the youngster, who would be second only to Bill Rexford, 23 when he won the title in 1950, as the youngest champions. "I'm really positive going into the last race. I don't know of a better place to wrap up the championship."

Asked if he has given up on winning his record eighth title this season, the feisty Earnhardt, 44, said, "Never is the word as far as giving up."