Gordon wins a hot one in Richmond

Jeff Gordon led just 15 of 400 laps under the lights at Richmond, Virginia, but they were the important ones. At the chequered flag -after exactly three hours of racing - the three-time champ denied Dale Earnhardt a US$1 million promotional "Winston Bonus" by 0.744s

Gordon wins a hot one in Richmond

Earnhardt's charge to second capped a typical, hotly-contested race on this 0.750 mile oval after a gutsy call from his crew to pit for tyres with 20 laps remaining. Next across the finish line were Mark Martin, Steve Park, Jeff Burton and Tony Stewart.

Pole-sitter Burton and Park were the class of the night, each leading four times for a total of 282 laps. On fresh tyres the two were so evenly matched, they shared the leaderboard most of the evening. But Burton didn't have fresh tyres when it counted.

"It was a tough call," he said later. "The guy that won didn't pit and we were leading the race, so we did the right thing. We gave ourselves the best chance to win by not pitting. If I could have gone like we were doing before the caution came out, Gordon would never have got by me."

Gordon agreed, in a way...

"The difference was clean air," he said in a post-midnight news conference. "The leader has the advantage and that's why I fought to get around Burton. If he was out front for any time, he would have won."

The other leaderboard - the points championship - underwent a change after a mix of bad luck and timing. Bobby Labonte still holds the reins, but it's Earnhardt who trails in 2nd by 158 points, followed by Dale Jarrett (-164) and Burton (-183).

It was a hot muggy night in the capital of the Old South - especially on pit road and in the cars. Ken Schrader drove off pit road with his boot on fire, leaving a flaming pit in his wake after a spill.

Chad Little, running 29th, reported feeling too sick to drive before the race was three-quarters done and requested a substitute driver. Little's crew fanned out and found Brett Bodine an agonizing 15 minutes later.

The cars suffered, too. Going the distance meant preserving the brake discs that glowed in each corner - and race-favorite Rusty Wallace's engine let go in a plume of smoke to bring out the race's sixth caution on lap 317.

The hot track made tyre management a priority as well - especially with
their proximity to the red-hot brakes. Among those suffering were Dale
Jarrett, who scraped the wall (finishing 31st) and Joe Nemechek, who had "the hardest hit I've ever taken" when he slammed into turn one.

Race fortune really turned on lap 355 when points leader Bobby Labonte's Pontiac started smoking. He pitted and NASCAR found a puddle under the car. After several stops he rejoined the race but fell a lap down to the field.

With 20 laps to go, debris on the track caused an eighth caution. Dale Earnhardt was the first of the top runners to pit for new rubber on the advice of crew chief Kevin Hamlin and his owner, Richard Childress. Burton, Gordon, Park, Stewart and Bill Elliott remained on the track. The chemistry was in place: a 'Saturday Night Shoot-out' - a barn-burner of a sprint race, was unleashed on lap 384.

Earnhardt shot to fourth in two laps, proving the gamble was worth it. With 10 to go, Earnhardt was dicing with his own driver - Park - for third. The pair were side-by-side for three laps and finally the seven-time champ got far enough alongside Park that he threatened to scrape him as he tucked-in. The threat worked - with six to go, and Gordon leading Burton ran ahead of him.

Three to go and Earnhardt was in second and running down Jeff Gordon. But he ran out of laps and Gordon won his first autumn Richmond race.

Gordon said he kept an eye on the black car in his rear-view mirror.

"I did not want him racing me for a million dollars," Gordon chuckled. "I know Earnhardt isn't going to let anything get between him and that. I'm glad we didn't have another five laps to race."

So how are employer and employee at DEI racing?

"I had to race him (Park) harder than I wanted," said a not-so-disappointed runner-up. "It was easy to get by Burton but we were tight in the middle of the corner and couldn't catch Jeff. It was a good day for us."

"Dale snuck one in on us," said a disappointed Park who seemed poised to win his second career race. "He came in for tyres and went hunting for a million dollars. He ran me hard and pretty clean."

Pretty clean. The boss is always right.

The night also marked the Winston Cup debut of young Casey Atwood, a Busch regular who will drive a Dodge in 2001. He finished 20th - not bad by any measure.

"I think we're going to be good one day," said Atwood, who will drive for legendary crew chief Ray Evernham. "We've got a lot of learning to do... I was having a ball!"

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