LONG POND, PA., JUNE 14 -- Tim Richmond and Dale Earnhardt were set for a wild duel to the finish, running 1-2 and bumper to bumper with five laps to go in the Miller 500 at Pocono today, but a pinhole in a tire popped Earnhardt's chances.

"We were in the catbird seat," said Earnhardt, reigning Winston Cup champion and 1987 points leader with six victories in 12 races so far.

"I was right where I wanted to be," running just behind Richmond and ready to slingshot into the lead, he said.

But instead of a run for Victory Lane, he was barely able to hang on to finish fifth as his right front tire went soft on the final laps. As Earnhardt faded, Richmond scooted away easily to take his first victory this season after sitting out the first 11 races of the year while recovering from double pneumonia.

Bill Elliott wound up second, about six car lengths behind Richmond. Kyle Petty was third and Cale Yarborough fourth.

If Earnhardt was a victim of bad luck -- running over debris during a caution period late in the race after running strongly all day -- Richmond overcame bad luck of his own to win it.

At Lap 93, not quite halfway through the 200-lap race on the 2 1/2-mile oval, he jammed his gear box and was stuck in second gear. His crew on a quick pit stop could only jam him into fourth gear and he limped out of the pits stuck in high gear and a full lap behind the leaders.

But he raced well with only one gear and the crew fixed the gear box on the next pit stop during a caution period after teammate Benny Parsons wrecked. Back in gear, Richmond climbed into a cat-and-mouse duel for the checkered flag with Earnhardt with 50 laps to go.

With 46 laps left Richmond dipped low and skirted past Earnhardt, and the two ran at the head of the pack with only a car length or two between them from that point until Earnhardt's misfortune.

With 22 laps to go Earnhardt came roaring into turn three, went low and got inside Richmond's left rear fender to take inside position. But Richmond swerved left and Earnhardt backed off the throttle.

The move was was uncharactistic of Earnhardt, who rarely gives any quarter. But lately all drivers on the NASCAR circuit have been warned about excessively aggressive tactics. Earnhardt said afterward, "If you stay there, you get in trouble if he hits you, so I figured I'd back off and not get fined."

The caution flag came out for the ninth and last time with seven laps to go when debris was spotted on the course. But it was too late for Earnhardt. "I felt the right front going flat," he said. "It was all I could do to survive."

"The whole thing was preparation for those last five laps," said his pit crew chief, Kirk Shelmerdine, "and then we don't get to do it." He said Earnhardt couldn't afford a pit stop for a new tire that late in the game. "We'd have ended up eighth or ninth," he said.

Richmond, 32, from Ashland, Ohio, won $40,325 for the victory before 90,000 fans on a cool, sunsplashed day in the mountains.

He picked Pocono to resume long-distance racing because it's been kind to him, he said. Last year he won both 500-mile races here, along with five others on the Winston circuit.

He raced a month ago in The Winston at Charlotte, a shorter race in which he finished third as Earnhardt won. That's been his only start this season after fighting pneumonia since November.

"It was more or less my choice to start here {on 500-milers}, because the track itself is not that physically demanding," he said. "It's not as tough on you as Bristol or Dover.

"I felt ready today," he said, brandishing a bottle of champagne at a postrace press conference. "People asked me so often, whether I was ready, I started to wonder myself. But there was no adjustment period at all today.

"It was just like the last six months never happened."

He said he wasn't ready emotionally, however. "I had tears in my eyes when I took the checkered flag. Then every time anyone congratulated me, I started bawling again."

During early going his Folger's Chevy seemed the fastest car, but he said other racers caught up because they adjusted as the race went on.

In the early going a close-quarters battle found him banging Earnhardt's bumper from behind, right in front of the grandstand. Asked about it later, he said: "I figure it was better if I got him before he got me."

Crew chief Harry Hyde said Richmond's victory was "the most sentimental moment in my 41 years in racing," and Richmond agreed. "It's not every day I cry on the last lap," he said.

Several cars wiped out, but there were no injuries and few moments of danger as the drivers roared through the afternon in 4 hours 5 minutes at an average speed of 122 mph.

Pole-sitter Terry Labonte left early, because he ran over debris and cut the belt that runs his oil pump, which promptly blew the engine. Rusty Wallace, Buddy Baker, Joe Ruttman (who was driving for injured Richard Petty) and Parsons were other dropouts.