Bobby Labonte figured nobody was going to beat Dale Earnhardt.
But after watching Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon wear out each other in a duel for the lead in the NASCAR Pepsi 400, Labonte shot past both today for his fourth victory of the season.
"It was pretty awesome," said Labonte, who started 19th at Michigan Speedway. "If you didn't clear both of them, you knew you were going to be in trouble."
Labonte decided to go for it on Lap 183, diving low into the first turn.
"We kept trying that move a few times," Labonte said. "Jeff and Dale were awful strong there, and I couldn't get by them."
It was Labonte's third Winston Cup win at the two-mile superspeedway in Michigan's Irish Hills region, where a crowd estimated at 153,000 looked on.
Unlike the June race at Michigan, when points leader Dale Jarrett won easily in a caution-free race, there was plenty of bumping and grinding that yielded six cautions for 26 laps.
The sixth and final caution came on Lap 162, when rookie Tony Stewart tapped Jeff Burton, causing him to spin out and hit the wall past Turn 4. When the race was restarted five laps later, it was a fierce battle to the finish.
Earnhardt and Gordon fought hard for the lead, sometimes separated by no more than a half-car length. Labonte, meanwhile, watched comfortably from a few feet back, waiting for the right time to strike in his Pontiac.
"Any time you come up on Earnhardt, he's going to be the toughest guy to pass, especially when he's leading a race," said Gordon, who has won five races this season. "Unfortunately, I was the guy who had to try to get by him, and it killed me."
Stewart -- who started 37th -- caught up with Labonte on Lap 182 of the 200-lap race. Gordon, Labonte and Earnhardt each nosed ahead briefly before Labonte took the lead for good.
Labonte pulled steadily away from the Chevrolet of Gordon, whom he wound up beating by .865 seconds, averaging 144.332 mph.
Earnhardt's Chevy began to lose traction in the turns, and he fell back, finishing fifth behind the Pontiac of Stewart and the Ford of Jarrett.
"I was having a good time, but my time ran out," Earnhardt said. "My tires tightened up. I'd like to have been there at the end."
Labonte, who has won twice this season in Long Pond, Pa., and once in Dover, Del., remained third in the standings.
Note: Ernie Irvan, who suffered a bruised lung and a mild head injury after crashing Friday at Michigan Speedway, continued to recover at a nearby hospital. Irvan remained in good condition and stayed overnight for further observation.