RICHMOND, Va. -- A sold-out crowd of 75,000 encircled Richmond International Speedway, their cameras flashing on every lap, like fireflies out on the town, as Mark Martin made his run at a historic fifth straight Winston Cup victory.
Under the lights of the Miller Genuine Draft 400, it didn't happen.
Martin almost pulled it off, but Rusty Wallace had other plans.
And then NASCAR made Wallace angry.
Wallace, who is chasing Dale Earnhardt for the Winston Cup championship, overcame a stop-and-go penalty for "jumping a restart," drove on anger for 305 laps and won the Miller Genuine Draft 400 by three car-lengths over Bill Elliott. Earnhardt finished third.
Martin, whose Valvoline Ford faded over the final 100 laps, finished sixth, 1.63 seconds from history.
"NASCAR said I jammed the brakes and mashed the gas, and it's just not true," said Wallace, who went from first to 26th, last on the lead lap on Lap 95. "It meant I had a long way to go and you never know if you can get there.
"I got busted and I was innocent. I was the leader of the race and the leader is supposed to start the race. If they don't like how I mash the gas, then they better give me a diagram showing how to press the pedal."
Wallace not only overcame the penalty, but also had to survive a final two-lap shoot out with Elliott, as he averaged 99.917 mph to complete the 300-mile course on the three-quarters-of-a-mile race track in 3 hours, 9 seconds. He collected $49,415.
Besides the "NASCAR done me wrong" perspective, Wallace was further inspired by his own plans for a record-setting performance.
While Martin was gunning for the instant satisfaction of winning a record fifth straight, Wallace is working on a long-range plan. He wants to become the first Winston Cup driver to overcome a 307-point deficit in the NASCAR points race and win his second title.
"My plan is to catch Dale," Wallace said. "But, boy, is he making it tough. The guy even had a wreck coming out of pit road" and finished third. But I've got the margin down to the 200s now. That's something."
Wallace is now within 284 points of Earnhardt going into the Peak Antifreeze 500 in Dover, Del., next Sunday.
"He has to get a DNF [Did Not Finish], but he just won't die," Wallace said. "You're kidding if you're asking if I'm giving up. Heck no, it's not over."
But Martin's streak is. Since the Winston Cup circuit reduced its schedule from 48 to 30 races in 1972, no one has won five in a row and Martin will go into the record books tied with Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Earnhardt, Harry Gant and Elliott as consecutive four-time winners.
"We just got slower toward the end," Martin said. "It's the first time in a long, long time that we haven't been able to counteract a little problem."
For a long time last night, it looked like Martin might win No. 5. He started 10th, with his car owner Jack Roush, an intensely driven man on a slow day, watching numbly from the pits.
"I can't image what the depression is going to be like when this thing is over," Roush said of his team's winning streak before the race.
Afterward, he said: "I'm not too disappointed. We've been so good for so many races."
The circumstances seemed right early on. As the big guns battled for the lead, Martin methodically worked his way through the field.
By the time the first caution flag flew on Lap 59, when Ernie Irvan's engine blew, four had already led.
Irvan took the initial lead but by lap nine, Bobby Labonte, whose pole-sitting performance was the first by a rookie this season, had moved to the front. Three laps later Wallace took over.
Through it all, Martin relentlessly drove toward the front. On Lap 56 he moved into second for the first time.
When the caution came, Wallace beat every one out of the pits, but -- unfortunately for him at the time -- he was too quick on the restart and was black flagged, which meant he had to come back into the pits for a momentary stop.