Jeff Burton showed up at Lowe's Motor Speedway with the strongest car in the field this evening. But the hazards of lapped traffic and a tenacious late-race charge by Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart made him work for his money.
Nearly four hours after the green flag fell, Burton wheeled his Ford into Victory Lane to claim the spoils of NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600, the longest race of the Winston Cup season.
Burton took the lead for good with 17 laps to go and held off Labonte for the win by a 0.574-second margin. For his work, he collected $1,212,500, which included a $1 million bonus from series sponsor R.J. Reynolds.
Mark Martin finished third. But it was Stewart, the fourth-place finisher, who staged the most gutsy show, racing in both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 the same day.
After finishing ninth at Indianapolis, Stewart took a jet to North Carolina to compete in the NASCAR race. He started dead last -- his penalty for missing the mandatory prerace drivers' meeting -- but muscled into the lead on Lap 267, showing no mercy as he passed Labonte, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, for the spot.
But the 1,090 miles of racing took its toll, and Stewart was placed on a stretcher after climbing from his car and treated for exhaustion and dehydration.
"He was spectacular," Martin said of Stewart, 27, a NASCAR rookie. "He has been that way all year."
Also impressive was the Winston Cup debut of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished 16th. His father, a seven-time series champion, was sixth.
Afterward, Burton heaped praise on his crew members for their quick work during his final pit stop, in which they needed just 17 seconds to ply his car with gasoline and slap on four fresh tires.
"This pit crew won the race," Burton said. "They kept their cool. That's doing it under pressure."
NASCAR's 600-mile race is a test of stamina, patience and, ultimately, smarts, as drivers and crews struggle to adjust their cars to changing track conditions. The sun was still bright and track temperatures sizzled at 109 degrees at 6:15 p.m., the start of the race. By the halfway point, the asphalt had cooled to 81 degrees, and a hazy orange moon rose over the backstretch.
It didn't take long to see that some teams responded to the shifting conditions better than others.
Burton's Ford flexed its muscle early. Burton took the lead from Labonte, the pole sitter, on Lap 15 and stretched the margin handily, leading 80 of the first 100 laps. Burton's pace was so torrid, he lapped more than half the field in an hour's time.
Among those battling to stay on the lead lap were Rusty Wallace and Geoffrey Bodine, who whipped around the track side-by-side for several circuits. Suddenly Bodine, who was on the inside, lost control of his car's rear end. As it swung around, it took Wallace's Ford with it. The combined spin looked like a choreographed dance, but it ended with Wallace's Ford smashing into the Turn 4 wall and then into Bodine.
Wallace suffered the brunt of the damage, and his crew took the news hard. After tending to the damage, a Wallace crew member shook an aluminum baseball bat at Bodine's car as it drove by on pit road. Bodine took a real hit just a few laps later when a blown tire sent him into the concrete wall.
Jeff Gordon's night also was spoiled, to the delight of many in the grandstands. The defending Winston Cup champion was running second when his rainbow-colored Chevy belched smoke on the backstretch. A faulty power-steering mechanism was the culprit. As Gordon wheeled his car into the garage for repairs, it seemed as if the entire grandstand shot to its feet, waving a sarcastic good-bye. Gordon finished 39th.
Steve Park was enjoying his best run yet when he ran into bad luck. It took the form of a lapped car that apparently was slowing to enter the pits. Park swerved to avoid it, lost control of his car, got tangled up with Jeremy Mayfield and then slammed nose-first into the wall. The crumpled heap then slid 200 yards to a halt.
With the ranks of contenders dwindling, Stewart made his charge as Labonte, his teammate, paced the field. Stewart got around Martin to take third, then ducked under Burton for second. The result put Gibbs's cars in first and second, with Labonte leading and Stewart closing fast.
Stewart wrested the lead on Lap 267, scooting under Labonte on the front stretch. As the race ground toward the finish, it became clear that only Stewart and Labonte had a chance to deny Burton his first win at the 1.5-mile superspeedway.
With about 50 laps to go, Stewart radioed his crew that he wasn't feeling well. With Stewart fading, Labonte remained Burton's only rival. And the two put on a dazzling show, maneuvering around slower cars, taking and re-taking the lead from one another with inches to spare.
"We're disappointed for Bobby," Gibbs said. "We missed by about 100 yards. I know he's sick. And Tony had a great day. There's no question that he's been phenomenal. Hopefully, we'll get him rested up."