Saturday's Pepsi 400 was billed as a showdown between two surging Chevrolet teams, one headlined by Dale Earnhardt Jr., the other led by Jeff Gordon.
The faceoff developed as planned, with both drivers near the front all night and both spending long spells in the lead. But when the thrilling conclusion finally came, Gordon had one thing that Earnhardt lacked: a teammate named Jimmie Johnson.
With Johnson pushing Gordon forward into the lead and then holding off a surging Earnhardt, Gordon took the checkered flag in a race that stretched into the early moments of Independence Day.
"I owe this one to Jimmie Johnson," Gordon said just after exiting his car. "He gave me a push that no one else out there would have ever given me. The guy just gets it, he just absolutely gets it. Next time he's going to get a push from me, that's for sure."
It was the second win in as many weeks for Gordon, who thoroughly erased the suggestions of a slump that surfaced last month. Both wins came from the pole, and Gordon now has four victories this season, the most of any driver.
The tense finish developed after a final cycle of green flag pit stops with 20 laps remaining. Tony Stewart, who took only two tires, came away with the lead, with Gordon in third and Earnhardt and Johnson farther back.
As the front pack continued to shake out, Johnson helped send Gordon past Earnhardt into second, and then past Stewart into first with six laps left.
Johnson admitted he had helped his close friend move into the lead, but said he wasn't satisfied to finish second to Gordon -- a co-owner of his car.
"We're here to win the race," said Johnson, still the points leader, who had his ninth top-five finish in his last 10 races. "There's no way in the world I wanted to finish second. If you listened to me when I crossed the finish there were plenty of four-letter words, because I wanted to win this race."
Despite Johnson's recent dominance, he was a role player in the night's primary rivalry. Gordon and Earnhardt had waged a similarly impressive battle in April at Talladega, the previous restrictor-plate race. NASCAR's decision to end that race under caution and grant victory to Gordon did not sit well in the center of the Earnhardt Belt. Angry fans showered that track with beer cans while waiting for Saturday's return engagement at Daytona's 2.5-mile oval.
Earnhardt and teammate Michael Waltrip had been the unquestioned kings of this track, combining to win five of the last seven races here. But Gordon and Johnson -- Hendrick Motorsports teammates -- had claimed three victories in the past five weeks, and were poised to challenge the Earnhardt team's restrictor-plate supremacy.
After a quarter of the race, all four drivers were in the top seven. Shortly after the halfway point, they monopolized the top four spots, teaming up to draft off each other and parry with the other pair. But when Waltrip later fell out of contention, Earnhardt was left in a one-against-two situation that he couldn't win.
"I can take a loss if we're right on their butt," said Earnhardt, who remained second to Johnson in the Nextel Cup standings. "You've got to give them credit; they did their work and teamed up there at the night when they needed to, and showed everyone how valuable that is."
The start of the race was delayed for more than two hours after a powerful late afternoon thunderstorm. During the downpour, three men were struck by lightning outside the track, a track spokesman said. They were examined and released from a first-aid center, telling track employees they were headed to Daytona's activities center, the spokesman said.
Jet driers and a fleet of 17 service vehicles were deployed on the waterlogged track, and rainbows appeared beyond Turns 2 and 3.
But a light drizzle soon returned, and darkness had thoroughly descended by the time the 43-car field finally rumbled to life shortly after 9:30, beginning the race with nine lazy laps under the caution flag.
Gordon quickly lost the lead to Waltrip, but by the end of the night he had led the most laps and moved into third in the Cup standings. Crew chief Robbie Loomis was suitably impressed, calling Gordon "the best restrictor-plate driver, ever" during a jubilant celebration with his crew.
If Gordon is on fire, so was Bobby Hamilton Jr., literally. His car belched flames on pit road, and then again entering Turn 1 shortly before the race's midway point. He was evaluated and released from the infield care center.
Reigning Cup champion Matt Kenseth got another poor result after being involved in an early four-car wreck, the night's most serious crash. The incident sent him directly into the garage, and he never recovered, finishing 39th. He has now finished 20th or worse in four of the past five races.
Stewart, who was penalized and fined after an on-track incident last weekend, finished fifth, jumping up two spots in the Cup standings to fourth.