RICHMOND, VA. - The answer to the biggest question of the night was waiting at the end of the Pontiac Excitement 400. Would the Winston Cup series have its 11th different winner of the season?
With 10 different winners in the first 10 races, the series already had a record. Could it be lengthened? Pole-sitter Rusty Wallace, who already had won once, certainly didn't want the streak to continue, and neither did nine other victorious men. And through the evening, as a crowd of 97,000 enjoyed a warm and hazy night, it seemed nearly all of them took a shot at stopping it.
And the rookie among them did.
Earnhardt Jr. finished less than a car length ahead of Terry Labonte, who just missed being winner No.11.
It was Wallace who has the best overall record of any driver at Richmond International Speedway in the modern era, and as he led all but 13 of the first 200 laps, it looked like he was headed for his seventh career victory here.
But then, one of the most exciting moments of the night would take away his chance, even though he was no where near it.
On lap 262, Dale Earnhardt, Mike Skinner and Bobby Labonte were racing out of Turn 4, three-abreast, fighting for sixth place. It was then that the nose of Labonte's Pontiac rode up the track just a fraction, just enough to make contact with Skinner. Labonte spun into the grassy area along the front straight, while Earnhardt, pinched against the wall, felt he needed a pit stop, leaving Skinner in sixth, as the caution flag came out.
But Earnhardt would benefit when, 12 laps later, another caution would give him track position. In fact, Earnhardt found himself in the lead, the seventh different leader of the night.
Earnhardt would lose the lead, then find himself in it again, after another pit stop, but his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. wrested the lead from him with 30 laps to go.
Winston Cup points leader Bobby Labonte experienced a gloomy night, as did Mark Martin, who was second in points coming in. Both men crashed, Labonte, twice.
"Tony Stewart had the car to beat," said Labonte, who had his best finish of the season. "Our car was about like Junior's. Our cars were equal, and I tried to save my tires for a last passing effort, but I just couldn't get by him. He did a real good job, and I'm just tickled with a second."
Earnhardt Jr. averaged 99.374 mph to win the race by .0159 of a second in 3 hours, 1 minute, 8 seconds.
"I'm surprised I held Terry off," said Earnhardt Jr. "I didn't think I could because he was really coming."
Stewart had the strong car late in the race, but during a pit stop on lap 364, he collided with Earnhardt Jr.'s right front as they were exiting the pits. Stewart had to come back in to repair the sheet metal damage and his chances for victory were over.
"I'm sorry for what happened to Tony," Junior said. "He really did have the best car. It was a shame for him, but he really didn't leave me much room."
Despite his two victories, and who would have thought at the start of the season that a rookie would be the first Cup driver with two wins after 11 races, he remains one point behind fellow rookie Matt Kenseth in the Rookie of the Year points race.
The first caution flag came out on lap 8, when last week's winner, Jeremy Mayfield, hit the third turn wall and was forced to go to the garage for repair. It was just one more blow for Mayfield and his team. Despite last week's win in California, the team is still suffering repercussions from last week's penalty that cost them 151 points in the standings, fines and the suspension of their crew chief for four races because of using illegal fuel at Talladega three weeks ago.
"We're still mending fences," said team co-owner Michael Kranefuss. "Exxon/Mobil I do not want to be seen involved in anything remotely like this. ... And Roger [co-owner Roger Penske] was very, very upset. Because of the time it took [for NASCAR to do all of its research and hand out penalties]. ... it allowed people to start speculating."
Some figured NASCAR was slow with its penalty because the team was co-owned by Penske and there was a lot of grumbling. The one no-no in NASCAR has always been fuel tampering, and behind the scenes other teams were campaigning for a stiff penalty, which Kranefuss believes his team has gotten.
Another caution slowed the field on lap 43, and every car but the Wood Brothers' Ford pitted. Elliott Sadler, who started the No.21 on a provisional 42nd in the 43-car field, led the race for one lap before he, too, pitted and gave the lead back to Wallace, who had beaten everyone else down pit road.
Wallace, who started on the pole, led all but that single lap over the first 100 laps. As the stock cars roared into their second 100 laps of the night, Mike Skinner was stalking Wallace, behind him down the straights, and alongside him through the turns. But with Sadler in front of him, trying to stay on the lead lap, Skinner struggled to put his car's nose ahead.
Finally, on lap 111, he was able to put his Chevy's nose in front of Wallace's Ford.