HAMPTON, Ga. - Three years ago, Jerry Nadeau was living in a motor home, watching the NASCAR Winston Cup Series on television.
On Monday, he watched the sport from his rear-view mirror.
Nadeau fought tears in the final three laps as his Michael Holigan.com Chevrolet Monte Carlo pulled away to an easy 50-yard victory over Dale Earnhardt in the NAPA 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"This proves good things happen to good people," Nadeau said.
His ride with Hendrick Motorsports was his fourth job in three years on the stock car circuit. But unlike his previous employment, which brought about only one top-five finish in 69 career starts, Hendrick Motorsports gave him a very real chance of winning.
Potential turned into reality on a sun-splashed morning, a day after the original starting time was delayed by rain.
Nadeau led eight times for 155 of 325 laps on the 1.54-mile raceway. He passed Ward Burton a quarter mile after a restart for a caution period, then ran away in the final six circuits to win his first race and become the fourth different first-time winner this year.
"Those last three or four laps were the most emotional I've ever had in a Winston Cup car," Nadeau said."I was working that car so hard. I was so emotional. I didn't know how to handle it. I've waited a long time for this."
The final caution for Scott Pruett's spin along the backstretch set up a seven-lap dash for the win among nine cars remaining on the lead lap. Burton started out front, but he was quickly overwhelmed by a handful of cars the moment the green flag waved.
"Right there at the end, Nadeau and the 3 car (Dale Earnhardt) laid back, they laid back about 40 yards (to get a running start for the green flag)," Burton said."There wasn't anything I could do. I should have seen it quicker. I hit the brakes trying to slow them down."
As Burton was hitting the brakes, the rest of the field was hitting the gas. Burton never had a chance.
"He never got on it," Nadeau said of Burton's restart."The green flag was already waving and I was up to his door and he stopped. Once we got to the line, we got a good run on him and that was all she wrote."
NASCAR rules prohibit passing on restarts until the cars pass the starting line. Nadeau came dangerously close to passing Burton, but he tamed his charge until both cars were well past the line and heading into the first corner.
"I was surprised he was at my door so quickly," Burton said."He was at my door before I even got on the gas. I don't know how one guy gets black-flagged one week and they don't do it the next.
"He out-ran me right there. I'm not whining about it. We gave this one away."
Earnhardt wound up second, while Burton held on for third. Pole-sitter Jeff Gordon finished fourth, followed by series champion Bobby Labonte in fifth, Mike Skinner in sixth, Rusty Wallace in seventh, Sterling Marlin in eighth, Matt Kenseth in ninth and Johnny Benson in 10th.
"We were lucky to finish second," Earnhardt said."It was good to see a kid like (Nadeau) win the race. We just didn't have enough."
Nadeau's victory was worth $180,550. It also helped tie a NASCAR modern-era record for number of different winners in a season (14) and the number of different first-time winners (four) in a season. The other first-time winners this season were Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kenseth and Steve Park. The modern era started in 1972, and the standard of 14 different winners was set in 1988 and matched in 1994 and 1998.
"I've wanted something like this for a long time," Nadeau said after averaging 141.295 mph."Every team I was with before this either went bankrupt, downhill or broke. Now I know I have the best of everything. I have great cars and I know I have all the resources I need.
"I used to wreck a lot of cars because I drove the wheels off. I've learned I can be smart about it now because I've got a good car under me."
The only major shake-up in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series point standings was a move by Earnhardt from third to second. Jeff Burton dropped to third in the final standings after finishing 12th in the race.
The difference between second and third in postseason awards is $328,000.
The racing season, already the longest of all professional team sports, will get back into gear in on Feb. 11 with the Bud Shootout all-star race at the Daytona International Speedway.