For 400 heated laps Saturday night, sparks flew furiously, brake rotors glowed cherry red and flames spewed from exhaust pipes under the lights at Richmond International Raceway.
And when all the metal cooled, four pieces of blistered rubber won the race for Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose decision to stay out on worn tires during a late caution helped him win the Chevy American Revolution 400 in front of 107,000 fans on a splendid evening for racing.
The victory was the third of the season for Earnhardt Jr., who started fourth in his red and black No. 8 Chevrolet. It was also his second career win on this three-quarter-mile track, and helped him strengthen his grip on the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series points lead, as his edge grew to 40 points over Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson, in the No. 48 Chevrolet, finished second and Joe Gibbs Racing's Bobby Labonte, driver of the No. 18 Chevrolet, was third, just ahead of teammate Tony Stewart, who was at times the fastest car on the track but was unable to catch up after pitting for tires on Lap 345.
Following his victory, it was amazing that Earnhardt Jr. had enough tread on his tires -- he drove more than 100 laps on them -- to perform his trademark doughnuts. But he did, as he spun the rear wheels on the front straightaway, sending tire smoke high in the air, enough to eventually engulf his entire car, as the fans stood and roared their approval for the sport's most popular driver.
"It was a great race car," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It had a great long run set-up on it. I was real loose on new tires, so pitting wasn't an option. Staying out was the thing to do."
Earnhardt Jr., the maestro of the short track, continued his dominance here. In 10 Cup races at Richmond, Earnhardt Jr. has five top-five finishes, three of which have come in the last four races, and seven top 10s. His other Cup victory at Richmond was in 2000, his rookie season.
Drivers expected the new pavement to make the racing considerably faster this weekend, and it did. Twenty-nine cars broke the previous track record during qualifying. Drivers also predicted the new surface would limit the racing to one groove, down low. They were wrong. There was plenty of the side-to-side racing -- and passes for the lead -- that earned Richmond the nickname "The Action Track."
After Stewart, in the No. 20 Chevrolet, entered pit lane during the ninth and final caution to get four fresh tires with 55 laps remaining, Earnhardt Jr., Johnson and Jeff Gordon gambled and stayed out. The green flag came back out with 45 laps remaining.
Stewart quickly reeled in Gordon, but both cars slid high, allowing Labonte to squeeze past. Meantime, Earnhardt Jr. and second-place Johnson stretched their leads. Both had enough fuel to finish the race. But did their tires have enough grip to hold off Stewart?
Earnhardt Jr. answered that question with a resounding, "Yes."
"There at the end, Tony was leading," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I was running him down before the caution came. We thought about pitting, but I knew I wasn't going to be able to pass [Stewart] in 40 laps. We took off. It had a great grip. They kept getting smaller and smaller, and that's what you want to see from your competition."
The action heated up near the race's midpoint, when a string of spins and crashes shuffled the field like a deck of cards.
When order was restored, a strong group of five cars began to separate themselves from the rest of the field. Michael Waltrip, Stewart, Brian Vickers, the rookie pole sitter, Labonte and Earnhardt Jr. pulled away, forming a formidable front pack.
But once Stewart wrestled the lead away from Waltrip on Lap 251, it was clear who had the fastest car: the Home Depot Chevrolet, driven by Stewart and owned by Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs. But the race ended in more frustration for Stewart, the 2002 Cup champion.