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 straigtened 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.