Ward Burton captured the AC-Delco 400 on Sunday for his first Winston Cup victory, a race overshadowed by the tightening championship duel between between leader Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt.
Two weeks ago, Gordon led seven-time champion Earnhardt by 302 points. After Sunday's 400-mile race at North Carolina Motor Speedway, Earnhardt trails by 162 points with two races remaining.The race ended in confusion and anger after an official's mistake forced NASCAR to put out the yellow flag.
Earnhardt was running sixth when he made his final scheduled pit stop under the green flag on lap 326 of the 393-lap event on Rockingham's 1.017-mile oval.
As he drove his Chevrolet Monte Carlo away, a NASCAR inspector thought he saw only four of the five required lug nuts on one of Earnhardt's tires. NASCAR brought Earnhardt in to put on a lug nut that turned out to be in place. It was a darker color than the other four.
Gordon already had had his problems during the race, being in the wrong place at the wrong time on two different occasions and falling two laps behind. Earnhardt fell to 14th, a lap off the pace and he and his crew were irate.
NASCAR, with president Bill France Jr. taking the lead, chose to put out a caution flag, keep pit road closed and place Earnhardt back into the proper position on the track.
Earnhardt joined several other cars in driving onto pit road during the caution to take on fresh tires. NASCAR then extended the caution period to allow any other competitors who wanted tires to make a stop.
It took from lap 372 to lap 384 to get it all straightened out, and even then the single-line restart had lapped cars mixed in among the leaders.
The last nine laps were run under green, with Earnhardt winding up seventh and Gordon, who ran into Darrell Waltrip on the last turn of the race, driving his battered car slowly across the finish line in 20th place, losing two spots because of that last-lap incident.
"I knew they'd made the wrong call," Earnhardt said. "It was a bad call by the inspector, but I think NASCAR did a pretty good job trying to rectify it. But it did seem to confuse everybody else."
Said France: "What we tried to do is put them back where they were before all this started. We didn't want to cost somebody or influence the championship one way or another. We want it decided on the racetrack."
Rusty Wallace finished second, trailing Burton's Pontiac Grand Prix across the finish line by 1.9-seconds - about 20 car-lengths. Burton averaged 114.778 mph and won $70,250.
Mark Martin, who had won two races in a row, finished third, followed by Terry Labonte and Jeff Burton, Ward's younger brother.
At Aida, Japan, Michael Schumacher won his second consecutive Formula One championship, getting a victory Sunday in the Pacific Grand Prix but no handshake on the podium from bitter rival Damon Hill.
Schumacher, who needed no better than a fourth-place finish in any of the final three races, overcame Hill's blocking tactics but didn't forget afterward.
"This is something between me and Damon," the German said. "We should sort it out ourselves."
The drivers had crashed into each other twice this year, forcing themselves out of the British Grand Prix in July and last month's Italian Grand Prix.
"Michael told me a few times after the race that he was unhappy about my driving," Hill said. "He said it was completely extraordinary."
The Briton could have taken the title only by winning the remaining races provided Schumacher's Benetton-Renault finished worse than fifth in each.
Hill blocked successfully in the early laps, but Schumacher said it had served as little more than a diversion.
"To win my second championship like this is a beautiful feeling," said Schumacher who at 26 is the youngest driver to win two consecutive titles.