RICHMOND, Va. -- They came in winter coats, earmuffs and gloves. They carried blankets, thermos bottles of hot coffee and hot chocolate and umbrellas for the rain, which splattered them for two hours before race time.
They sat on metal seats, as cold as blocks of ice. But none of the 51,000 race fans here at Richmond International Raceway moved to leave until Dale Earnhardt had edged Ricky Rudd by three-quarters of a car length for victory in the Pontiac 400 yesterday.
"If I had had another lap," Rudd said, "I might have got him."
"If we had had another lap, I might have been pulling away," countered Earnhardt.
Earnhardt is probably closer to the truth.
He is the defending Winston Cup champion, and he looks as if he has designs on another title -- which would be his fifth.
He had everyone terrorized by his power at Daytona last week, but lost that because his tires lost their grip on the backstretch in a door-to-door battle with Davey Allison.
Yesterday, he eased himself back in the lead in this year's championship race, and he did it after spotting the field 19 starting positions in qualifying.
"I was so sick Friday during qualifying, I could hardly sit up," he said of the effort that put him closer to the rear than the front of the field. "I had the flu and I made the mistake of taking antibiotics that you are supposed to take with food on an empty stomach because I was in a hurry to get to the track. I'm not completely better, but after winning, I feel 100 percent."
His black Goodwrench Lumina was like an avenger as it averaged a race-record 104.378 mph. When Earnhardt was in the lead, he pulled away with seeming ease.
It wasn't until Hut Stricklin and Bret Bodine tangled in turn one on Lap 394 of this 400-lap race, bringing out the caution flag, that Rudd was able to position himself on Earnhardt's bumper.
That's how Rudd managed to be in the right spot to take advantage of an Earnhardt bobble out of Turn 4 as they came around to begin the final lap.
"My tires had a lot of rubber on them and coming out of four, I got loose and Ricky got under me," Earnhardt explained. "When he did that, I went high and just tried to run a strong line. We raced clean. There was no bumping, and I was able to get on the accelerator quicker out of the third turn. I think that made the difference."
But the real difference may just be the Richard Childress-owned team, with its relentless preparation.
The new pit rules, which limit pit work under the yellow caution flag, were supposed to be a problem here. But they never entered into the equation for the Earnhardt team. Childress simply decided to ignore the cautions. They would pit for tires every 100 miles, no matter what.
"I felt comfortable out there," Earnhardt said. "Anything anyone does on the racetrack favors us. Every track is my kind of track, because I run them all wide open. And no matter what rule changes they make, they work to our advantage, because this team doesn't let the rules dictate to us. Richard decides what's best for us and makes them work for us. The reason we've done what we've done in the past is because of that consistency."
Daytona 500 winner Ernie Irvan finished 27th, slowed by battery problems . . . Earnhardt won $67,950 . . . In addition to Earnhardt and Rudd, Harry Gant, Rusty Wallace, Alan Kulwicki, Mark Martin and Darrell Waltrip finished on the lead lap.