RICHMOND, Va. -- The crowd stood to watch the father-son duel in the Pontiac 400, a buzz of anticipation in the air as Dale Earnhardt Jr. chased down his father, a seven-time Winston Cup champion and well-known race finisher.
What they saw instead Saturday night may have been the series' future.
Earnhardt Jr., making his 16th start in stock car racing's premier circuit, passed his father with 31 laps to go at Richmond International Raceway and held off two challengers to become the first repeat winner on the series this season.
''What a driver this kid is,'' Dale Jarrett said. ''Unbelievable.''
Earnhardt Jr., who won in dominant fashion at Texas a month ago, ducked inside his father's Chevrolet and never looked back two laps into green-flag racing after they emerged from pit stops under caution nose-to-tail battling for the lead.
''I really wish I could have raced him for the win. That would have been really fun, but he did a good job. I guess he's going to make a habit of winning,'' Dale Earnhardt, the owner of his son's team, said during a Victory Lane celebration.
And, like his father has done in a career that includes 75 Winston Cup victories, the rookie also sparked controversy by costing Tony Stewart, last year's rookie of the year, an almost certain chance to end a sophomore jinx.
Stewart was leading when Mark Martin slammed into the wall on the 361st of 400 laps, bringing out the ninth caution and sending the leaders to the pits.
After getting service, Stewart was on his way out of his stall when Earnhardt Jr. clipped the back of his car. The collision flattened Stewart's left rear tire, forcing him to pit again and dropping him to 22nd and out of contention.
''Tony Stewart, I really feel bad about that. He really didn't give me a whole lot of room to get out there,'' Earnhardt Jr. said. ''I hate that he cut a tire because he really had a race-winning car. He really had the fastest car tonight.''
On the track, Earnhardt Jr. pulled away briefly but couldn't shake two-time Winston Cup champion Terry Labonte or Jarrett, the defending series champion. Both closed within striking distance in the final laps, but could get no closer.
''I tried to save it until there were 10 or 12 laps to go to get back to the bottom,'' Jarrett said. ''I thought I might catch him. Dale Jr. did a great job.''
Earnhardt Jr.'s second career victory ended a record streak that had seen 10 different drivers win the first 10 races of the season. He led only the final 31 laps and beat Labonte to the finish by 0.159 seconds in a battle of Chevrolets.
''Tony Stewart had the car to beat,'' Labonte said. ''We would have been running for third if he hadn't had that problem on pit road. ... I tried to save my tires and make a move there at the end, but I didn't have enough to get by him.''
Jarrett, the defending race champion, was third, followed by Virginia native Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace, and brothers Ward and Jeff Burton, also of Virginia. Stewart was eighth, followed by Bill Elliott and the elder Earnhardt.
The race featured 21 lead changes among nine drivers and nine cautions that slowed the pace for 59 laps. Earnhardt Jr.'s average speed was 99.374 mph.
The race tightened the series points lead considerably because Bobby Labonte and Martin, who were first and second to start the day, both struggled.
Labonte was running among the leaders when he spun racing three-wide with Mike Skinner and the senior Earnhardt on the 263rd lap. Labonte also pitted under green with 48 laps left after he tangled with Jarrett in the backstretch.
Labonte finished 26th, and Martin was 32nd after his late accident.
Labonte still leads the points race, but Ward Burton passed Martin for second and trails by only three after making up 70 points with his strong run. Martin is third, another 30 points back, followed by Jeff Burton and the elder Earnhardt.
Earnhardt Jr., a two-time Busch Grand National Series champion, climbed from 22nd to 17th in the points race, second among rookies to No. 14 Matt Kenseth.
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