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Popular winner at Homestead

Forgive Bill Elliott for a rather woeful series of donuts and tire burnouts in celebration of his 41st career victory.

It had been a while.

Elliott snapped a 226-race winless streak at Sunday's Pennzoil 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, riding past the grandstand three times to smoke his tires before pulling the No. 9 Dodge into Victory Lane.

Burnouts, the preferred postrace display of the sport's rising stars, were not popular the last time Elliott won a Winston Cup event more than seven years ago.

"I've never done that in my career," said Elliott, 46, who hadn't won since September 1994 at Darlington. "It was great. The older you get, the harder it is to win."

Ray Evernham, who won 47 races and three championships in seven seasons as Jeff Gordon's crew chief, won in his first season as a car owner. He watched both his drivers, Elliott and 21-year-old rookie Casey Atwood, battle for the lead in the closing laps.

"It was like having two kids playing a baseball game and not knowing which one to root for," said Evernham, who spearheaded Dodge's return to Winston Cup racing this season after an absence of 16 years. "I was just hoping they didn't wreck each other."

Atwood finished a career-best third after being passed on the final lap by Michael Waltrip's Chevrolet. Jeff Burton was fourth in a Ford and Sterling Marlin fifth in a Dodge.

"I'm proud for Bill," Waltrip said. "I probably shouldn't say this, but I'm going to say it anyway. I grew up watching Bill Elliott race. To run second to him is pretty cool."

Gordon failed in his first chance to clinch a fourth Winston Cup championship. Strong early, he dropped to the back after a pit-road collision with Jeff Green and finished 28th, one lap down. He leads Ricky Rudd by 305 points with two races left.

"Clinching it early is not my goal," said Gordon, who can wrap up the title with a 32nd-place finish Sunday at Atlanta. "My goal is to win the championship and win races."

Elliott led the first 53 laps from the pole, but two-time defending race winner Tony Stewart seemed poised for a three-peat. His No. 20 Pontiac led six times for a race-high 73 laps. But Stewart lost the lead during yellow-flag pit stops on Lap 225 of 267 when some, including Elliott and Atwood, changed two tires instead of four.

Atwood and Elliott, who started in the front row, came off pit road first and second, respectively. Atwood pulled away to a 3.7-second lead and might have celebrated his first win had rookie Kurt Busch not spun out on Lap 249.

"I thought we had it," said Atwood, the subject of rumors he will drive something other than a Winston Cup car for Evernham next season to make room for Jeremy Mayfield. "We just didn't need that last caution."

Atwood fought off Elliott's challenge on a Lap 255 restart. But when Elliott pulled within inches on Lap 263, Atwood's No. 19 drifted up the track, allowing Elliott to pass inside. He pulled away to a 1.42-second victory.

Elliott, voted NASCAR's most popular driver the past 10 seasons and 15 total, won his first race in 1983. He was the first to claim the Winston $1-million bonus in 1985 and won 40 times from 1983-94.

Then, nothing.

With Evernham's first-year team, Elliott won the pole at the season-opening Daytona 500 and came close to victory at Indianapolis and Michigan in August. But Dodge won three races, two by Marlin and one by Ward Burton, before Elliott's victory.

"I was beginning to think Ray didn't make a very good decision," Elliott said.

Elliott felt badly for Atwood, whom he wanted to win. Elliott also wanted it for himself but felt happiest for Evernham and crew chief Mike Ford.

"This is Mike's first win as a crew chief," Elliott said. "He was in high school when I won the championship in 1988."

Residents in Elliott's hometown of Dawsonville, Ga., have been waiting, too. Years ago, Gordon Pirkle, owner of the Dawsonville Pool Hall, established a tradition of sounding a siren mounted atop his establishment every time Elliott won a Winston Cup race.

Lately, Pirkle had lowered the standard.

"They blew it a couple weeks ago when I won a dirt track race," said Elliott, who drove at Sugar Creek Raceway about an hour outside of Dawsonville the week of the Talladega race in October. "People probably thought the town was on fire."

Just like Elliott's tires.

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