RICHMOND, VA. Joe Nemechek earned his third career Winston Cup victory when the Pontiac Excitement 400 was shortened by seven laps because of rain. But make no mistake about it, Nemechek's victory before a sellout crowd of 105,000 at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday was no gift from the heavens.
Nemechek earned the win, his first since a race at Rockingham, N.C., in November 2001. He led the final 64 laps after passing Robby Gordon for the lead, but the strength of his Chevrolet was apparent long before that.
"The car was unbelievable," Nemechek said. "Since we unloaded it off the truck, it's been unbelievable. We never really changed anything since we got here."
Starting second, Nemechek passed pole-winner Terry Labonte on the first lap. The pair exchanged the lead three times in the first four laps before Nemechek seized control for the next 42 laps.
Labonte beat Nemechek off pit road during the first round of stops, which followed the first of a race-record 15 cautions, and led for the next 29 laps. Then Ryan Newman, whose four failures to finish lead the series this season, ran up front for 24 laps before driving his smoking car into the garage for rear gear repairs.
Nemechek seized control again, leading for 22 laps this time. Beaten in the pits again, Nemechek gave way to Bobby Labonte for 60 laps, then moved back in front for 24 more. Five drivers led the next 103 laps, including Gordon for 29 laps.
Even when not leading, Nemechek flexed his muscle. He was fourth following a caution brought about by Jack Sprague's spin in Turn 4 on lap 300. But he quickly passed Ricky Rudd for third and Jamie McMurray for second, then moved by Gordon on the inside for the lead on lap 330.
Nemechek wasn't challenged in the final 64 laps before rain brought the race to a halt.
"We could go high or low, anywhere we wanted," Nemechek said. "When you can do that, it's fun."
Bobby Labonte finished second, with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Gordon and Mark Martin also in the top five. Labonte's runner-up finish was his third in as many races.
"Three firsts would be better, but three seconds is OK," Bobby Labonte said. "The car wasn't as good at the beginning, so I told Fatback (crew chief Michael McSwain) about it and we made some changes. We were just a little too tight at the end. Joe was a little bit faster than us."
Earnhardt Jr. continued his rise in the Cup standings. He pulled to within 20 points of Cup leader Matt Kenseth, who finished seventh.
"The car wasn't working there at the end," Earnhardt said. "It was a little too tight, and we didn't need that caution coming out at the end."