TALLADEGA, Ala. -- With two laps to go in the Winston 500 here yesterday, Harry Gant thought his day's ride was over.
Throttle down and 21 seconds ahead of the field, Gant's Skoal Bandit Oldsmobile sputtered once. . . twice. . . then roared back to life.
It was a sign for him to duck underneath Skoal teammate Rick Mast, off whom he had drafted for the previous 10 laps to conserve fuel, and hope for a friendly push.
Having stretched his final tank of gas to the limit, Gant could only wonder along with the Talladega Superspeedway crowd of 105,000 if he had enough fumes for the final two laps.
He did, coasting under the checkered flag to become, at age 51, the oldest driver ever to win a Talladega race.
"With two laps to go, I thought that was it," Gant said of his first-ever Talladega win. "I didn't think I was going to make it.
"But we got by [Mast] and that helped me out a whole lot there. He hit me real hard and that kept the motor turning."
It was a working relationship that piqued NASCAR officials' interest in the final lap, where any assistance other than normal drafting is illegal.
NASCAR officials reviewed a tape of the final lap to see if Mast had illegally aided Gant, but found it inconclusive and upheld Gant's win. They also pulled Gant's gas tank and hoses to find he had a quart of gas remaining.
The win broke a 24-race winless streak for Gant and earned him $81,950.
Along the way, Gant had to dodge downpours and disaster to duck into victory lane.
The first came Sunday when strong thunderstorms brought heavy rains and high winds down on the 2.66-mile track and forced the race's postponement.
The latter came on lap 71 of the 188-lap event when close racing in the 30-car lead pack and a miscue by pole-sitter Ernie Irvan touched off a 20-car pileup down the backstretch. Battling with Kyle Petty for position in the heart of the pack, Irvan slid up into Petty, sending both spinning sideways.
When the cars finally quit careening, over half the remaining field sat disabled in turn three, including Mark Martin, whose car lifted completely off the ground in a spectacular 180-degree spin.
"Somebody asked if I saw what happened," Martin said. "I said, 'No, I just felt it.'
"I didn't see what happened because I closed my eyes."
When he opened them again, the view in front of him was of six cars that would be completely sidelined and 14 others, that for all practical racing purposes, were useless as well.
One of those knocked from the race was Petty, who was cut from his Mello Yello Pontiac and transported to a Birmingham hospital where he underwent surgery for a compound fracture of the left femur.
It was the last caution period of the day, however, as the drivers embarked on a stretch of green-flag racing that set up Gant's nail-baiting finish.
The drama began on lap 132 when Gant made his final pit stop, 11 laps after Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip, the two drivers who dominated the first 121 laps.
After that, it became a question of gas mileage and good luck for Gant, who managed to miss the earlier melee by stopping completely on the backstretch, then weaving his way through.
"The car was loose and I told the guys I was going to back up in the back of the pack and take it easy," Gant said. "We ran a long time like that. When cars started pitting, we kept running."
Until he ducked in the pits only to top off his tank that final time on lap 132.
"They put gas in and I took off out of the pits," Gant said. "About three laps later they came on the radio and said that 'if you do the same thing, using that much throttle, we can make it the rest of the way.'
"So that's what I did the last 50 laps. After that, the whole time they kept telling me to 'ease up, ease up, don't use no gas, draft, draft, draft.' "
And draft he did, right up to the moment his engine cut out on the final lap, still a good half-mile from home.
"Coming around on the checkers, the engine was not running," Gant said. "From the entrance to pit road to the finish line, I coasted."
He came in 14 seconds ahead of Waltrip, who held off a late challenge by Earnhardt. Rounding out the top 10 were Sterling Marlin, Michael Waltrip, Geoff Bodine, Ken Schrader, Bill Elliott, Jimmy Spencer and Mast.