RICHMOND, Va. Blunders like missing pit road have surely cost Joe Nemechek in his career. The mistake cost him 24 spots Saturday night, but this time he had 173 laps and the car to more than make up for it.
With help from a no-pit gamble that paid off with 100 laps left, three late-race cautions and rain that halted the race with 6 1/2 laps to go, Nemechek won the Pontiac Excitement 400 for his third career Winston Cup victory.
It almost didn't happen after Nemechek and crew chief Peter Sospenzo miscommunicated on when the driver should pit, and he missed the pits and dropped from first to 25th when he finally pitted on his own.
In the heat of the battle, I wanted to choke him,'' Nemechek said of his crew chief. I wanted to get out and wrestle right there. It's just one of those things. We're leading and then, dang, I missed it.''
Before the blunder, Nemechek looked like he had the dominant car. After it, he had to prove it, and with a lot of cars in front of him.
Man, there was a lot of cars line up there, and I was in the back, but everything worked out,'' he said. The car was so fast. I passed an awful lot of race cars there. As soon as that car started going fast again and I started passing all those cars, I never thought about it again.''
At the end, the last three of a track-record 15 cautions for 91 laps helped, and so did the free pass after the rain shower came.
It was an unbelievable night,'' he said. Everything was perfect. It was a great team effort and I had a lot of fun out there tonight. When you see a car that good, run high, low, wherever it wanted to go, it was fun.
It didn't matter what we did to the car. It was strong all night.''
Bobby Labonte was second for the third consecutive race, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Robby Gordon, who rallied from three laps down early on and gave Chevrolet a sweep of the top four spots.
Three first places would be better, but three second places is the next best thing,'' Labonte said. We've got a lot of confidence.''
Mark Martin was fifth in a Ford.
The rain might have deprived Labonte and Earnhardt from making a late push.
We really didn't need any of those cautions,'' Earnhardt said. We needed long, long runs and I think we were better than most of them.''
Earnhardt did cut Matt Kenseth's points lead from 44 to 20.
Labonte didn't think he could have caught Nemechek unless something happened and he slipped up the race track or something like that. My car was a little bit tight and his car looked a little bit better''
Gordon and Nemechek gambled by staying on the track with four others during a caution with 100 laps to go. When the race went back to green, Gordon was leading, Nemechek was fifth and a handful of contenders were right behind them, counting on fresher tires to carry them forward.
On lap 331, Nemechek passed Gordon for the lead, then pulled away trying to extend his advantage. Chief among his pursuers was Earnhardt, who moved into second on lap 355 as the crowd of 100,000 roared wildly.
Nemechek had built his lead as high as almost 2 seconds and was easily disposing of lapped traffic when Dale Jarrett spun out on the 363rd lap, the caution erasing the lead and setting up a possible closing shootout.
Nemechek held onto his lead through three more restarts, taking advantage of a duel for second in which Labonte finally passed Earnhardt, and then was handed the last 6 1/2 laps when the race was called.
Nemechek led six times for 155 laps, winning for the first time since November 2001 at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham. His only other career victory in nine years came at Loudon, N.H., in September 1999.
The second five included Kevin Harvick, the Fords of Kenseth and Roush Racing teammates Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton, and Rusty Wallace's Dodge.
Busch passed Jeff Gordon for third place in points, 167 behind.
Among those not enjoying the night were two-time defending champion Tony Stewart, who apparently ran over some debris, crashed and was 41st.
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