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The Callahan Report: Earnhardt Jr. wins at Richmond with 'second fastest' car

7 May 2000

By Terry Callahan
Motorsports Editor, The Auto Channel
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
RICHMOND, VA: Night racing is action-packed. It is also surprising at times. That was the case in Saturday night's Pontiac Excitement 400 at Richmond. The action was when Dale Earnhardt Jr. fought to become the first repeat winner of the 2000 NASCAR Winston Cup season. The surprise was that he didn't have the fastest car.

Earnhardt Jr., running in the top-ten all night, found himself in second place as the field took the green flag for the final time with 31 laps remaining in the race. The young rookie was leading two laps later. He shot around his legendary father, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, on his way to his second career victory. His first victory came in last month's DirecTV 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Prior to the final green flag, it looked as though Earnhardt Jr. was going to settle for a top-five finish. Tony Stewart took the lead at the halfway point in the race. Stewart was the man to beat until the final round of pit stops. As Stewart was exiting the pits, Earnhardt Jr. pulled out and tapped Stewart's left rear. The 1999 rookie of the year was forced to pit to replace a flat tire as a result. He dropped from first to 22nd.

"Tony Stewart, I really feel bad about that," said Earnhardt Jr. in victory lane. "He really didn't give me a whole lot of room to get out there. I hate to cut a tire because he really had a race-winning car. He really had the fastest car here tonight."

"What could I do? What was I gonna do? I did everything I could do," said a tight lipped Stewart. "It wasn't his fault. It wasn't my fault. It's just part of racing."

Stewart's crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, was not as kind in his interpretation of the pit road incident with Earnhardt Jr.

"They hit. It looked like the 8 car was just trying to block him - do what everybody does, pull out and try to go all the way to the outside," Zipadelli stated after the race. "He hit us, we suffered from it, and it didn't bother him any. That's just racing. It's going to happen all the time. We just need to start racing that way."

Rusty Wallace dominated the first half of the race before Stewart pulled into the lead. Wallace won the pole and is a multi-winner at Richmond. If Wallace could have caught up with Stewart, his pit strategy killed those chances.

"I went from first to 20th and I said, 'Man, it's over now.' And just kept wheeling it, wheeling it, wheeling it and a couple circumstances happened that we got up to fifth," said a dejected Wallace. "But it's just a crying shame because, man, the car was bad fast all day long. That happened again. This pit strategy crap is killing us."

Two former Winston Cup Champions chased Earnhardt Jr. to the finish line Saturday night. The 1996 champion, Terry Labonte, finished a close second behind the young rookie from North Carolina. The defending Winston Cup Champ, Dale Jarrett was glued to Labonte's rear bumper at the finish.

Earnhardt Jr. should be proud of his early accomplishments in NASCAR's top series. He is gaining the praise of some of the best in the sport, as well as beating them.

"Dale, Jr. did a great job," said Jarrett. "What a driver this kid is, unbelievable. Who would have ever thought he'd be the first two-time winner on the circuit? But he does a great job, a lot of talent."

Saturday night saw two of the newest drivers on the circuit shine. Former champions and legends of the sport were chasing them. NASCAR Winston Cup racing continues to be exciting as new stars emerge.

Editors Note: To view hundreds of hot racing photos and art, visit The Racing Photo Museum and the Visions of Speed Art Gallery.