Dale Jarrett overcame a bad break and won Sunday's Dura-Lube 500, tightening the Winston Cup championship race as points leader Jeff Gordon came close to misfortune.
Jarrett leapfrogged Mark Martin into second place and trails Gordon by 77 points with only the Nov. 16 season finale remaining. Martin also gained ground on Gordon, finishing sixth and moving within 87 points.
The 26-year-old Gordon, the 1995 series champion and last year's runner-up, was in the top five when he began to experience a tire problem on Lap 240.
He faded and was running 10th when he slowed dramatically and nearly hit the third-turn wall on Lap 273 before driving slowly to the pits. By the time he drove his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet back onto the 1-mile oval, Gordon was 30th and in danger of losing his points lead.
But Gordon, who began the race with leads of 125 points over Martin and 145 over Jarrett, was able to slice through traffic, finally passing Ernie Irvan by a nose at the finish line to wind up 17th.
"I really don't know what the problem was," Gordon said. "I felt something was going on the right side and I knew it was going to be a miracle to get to the end without pitting. Then, bang, something just went. I was real lucky not to hit the wall."
Crew chief Ray Evernham said the right-side tires were badly chewed.
"I've been saying all year it's going to go right down to Atlanta and, boom, here it is," Gordon said.
Gordon, who has 23 top-10 finishes in 31 starts, can wrap up the title at Atlanta by finishing 18th or better, no matter what the two contenders do.
Jarrett made an early pit stop and lost a lap to the leaders when Ward Burton's crash brought out a caution flag moments later on Lap 129. He got back on the end of the lead lap and was 16th after the leaders pitted during the ensuing caution. When the green flag flew again for the start of Lap 139, Jarrett began an amazing charge.
His Robert Yates Racing Ford reached ninth on Lap 194 and worked toward the front until it shot past Rusty Wallace into the lead on Lap 240. Jarrett led the final 73 laps of the 500-kilometer, 312-mile event, crossing the finish line half a straightaway ahead of Wallace's Ford. "We've got a chance now," Jarrett said. "That's all we asked for."
Jarrett drove the last 95 laps _ 95 miles _ on a tank of gas.
"It's just an incredible race car," he said. "It was built in-house from the ground up and this is the first time we've raced it. It was so good, it let me take it easy with the fuel and we were able to finish without any problem."
Winston Cup point leaders
Jeff Gordon can wrap up the title in the season-ending NAPA 500 Nov. 16 at Atlanta by finishing 18th or better, no matter what the other contenders do:
1. Jeff Gordon 4,598
2. Dale Jarrett 4,521
3. Mark Martin 4,511