Earnhardt Jr. edges T. Labonte to win Pontiac Excitement 400


RICHMOND, Va. -- The answer to the biggest question of the night was waiting at the end 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? Ten previously victorious men hoped not, 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.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. became the first two-time winner of the Winston Cup season and moved within one victory of the modern era rookie record of three set last season by Tony Stewart.

"Tony Stewart had the car to beat," said Terry Labonte, who lad his best finish of the season, a second. "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 over Terry Labonte and Dale Jarrett, who came on strong at the end.

"I'm surprised I held Terry off," said Earnhardt Jr. "I didn't think I could because he was really coming fast and we didn't have the best race car."

Stewart, who won the first of his three races here last season, had the strongest car late in the race. But during a pit stop on lap 364, he collided with the right front of Earnhardt Jr as they were exiting the pits. Stewart had to make an additional pit stop to repair the sheet metal damage, and his chance for victory was over.

"I feel really bad 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 to get out of there. I hate that he cut his tire. He really had the winning car."

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 --Earnhardt Jr. remains one point behind fellow rookie Matt Kenseth in the Rookie of the Year points race.

That came as a surprise to Jarrett, who was running 14th with 100 laps to go.

"What a driver this kid is, unbelievable!" said Jarrett, who seemed more excited about the rookie's victory than the rookie.

To get the lead in this race, Earnhardt Jr. went door to door with his dad, seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt and beat him coming out of Turn 4 with 31 laps to go.

"Junior did a good job," said the father, who also owns his son's race car. "We made the decision to get only two tires on our last pit stop and with just two tires, I didn't have anything for him. I really wish I could have raced him for the win. That would have really been fun, but he did a good job.

I guess he's going to make a habit of winning. He's the first repeat winner this season, and I guess that's a pretty good deal for a rookie."

Over the first 200 laps of the 400-lap race, pole sitter Rusty Wallace was the man to beat as he led all but 13 laps to the halfway point. But then, one of the most exciting moments of the night ended his hopes for victory.

On lap 262, Earnhardt, Mike Skinner and Bobby Labonte were racing out of Turn 4, three-abreast, fighting for sixth place when the nose of Labonte's Pontiac rode up the track just a fraction. It was 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.

Wallace, the leader at the time, decided to stay on the track, as did nearly every other driver. But when another caution flag came out 12 laps later, Wallace and company pitted, while Earnhardt didn't.

The next time the green flag flew, Earnhardt was in the lead, the seventh different leader of the night. Wallace, who eventually finished fifth, found himself fighting his way through traffic back in 15th place.

Earnhardt would lose the lead to Terry Labonte a lap or so later, but then, with 35 laps to go, another caution flag would create another pit stop opportunity. When Earnhardt decided to take just two tires, it put him back on the track in first, right in front of his son.

Earnhardt Jr. wrested the lead from him on the next green-flag lap. "I've got to thank Dad," Junior said. "He's doing an awesome job hiring the right people in getting the motor program together so we can be fast like this. It just shows I might drive a pretty good race car, but we got some great people making these things go fast."

NOTES: Earnhardt Jr. won $118,850. ... Bobby Labonte, who crashed twice, retained the Winston Cup points lead -- by three points over Ward Burton, Mark Martin, who also crashed, slipped to third. Geoffrey Bodine, who returned to racing for the first time since his wild crash at Daytona International Speedway in February, was relieved by his younger brother Todd. Together, they finished 13th.

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