Originally created 11/05/01

Nemechek wins Pop Secret 400



ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- It took Joe Nemechek two years and 70 races to prove he can still win in the Winston Cup Series and he did it Sunday with a dominating performance in the Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 400.

Nemechek, who won his only other Winston Cup race in 1999, was never challenged over the final 100 laps and beat Kenny Wallace to the finish line at North Carolina Speedway by 6.285 seconds.

He led 196 of the 393 laps to win his first race for car owner Andy Petree in their final season together. Petree is losing the sponsor of the No. 33 Chevrolet and Nemechek, afraid the team might fold, is rumored to be driving for Travis Carter next season.

Wallace, the replacement driver in the Chevrolet Steve Park drove to victory here in February, completed a stellar weekend with his highest finish of the season.

Wallace, filling in at Dale Earnhardt Inc. in the Cup car while Park recovers from a head injury, captured the pole for this race and won the Busch Series race on Saturday.

Johnny Benson was third Sunday, followed by Dale Jarrett and Jerry Nadeau. Ward Burton was sixth and was followed in the top 10 by Tony Stewart, Ricky Rudd, Bobby Labonte and Matt Kenseth.

Series leader Jeff Gordon had an awful day, finishing three laps down in 25th place. It allowed Rudd, his closest competitor in the title chase, to gain 54 points on him.

But with three races remaining, Gordon still holds a 326-point lead and can clinch his fourth Winston Cup title by finishing 28th or better in all of them.

Nemechek, meanwhile, salvaged what's been a rollercoaster season with the victory. He sustained severe injuries in May when he crashed his Busch series car while testing it, causing him to miss five races. And with his situation with Petree up in the air, he had been limping along and came into the race 33rd in the points standings.

But he caught several breaks on Sunday, including clean driving from the field that resulted in a race-record two cautions, the fewest ever for a 400-mile event at the track.

The first yellow flag came out on the first lap, when Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Petty and Bill Elliott all made contact and Petty was knocked out of the race.

But it was almost all green-flag runs from there and Nemechek benefitted from a field-jumbling set of circumstances just before the midway point of the race.

Nemechek had briefly given up the lead to Labonte when most of the cars began making their pit stops. While Labonte was pitting, Carl Long brought out the only other caution of the race when he hit the wall on Lap 176.

The field was then jumbled, with most of the leaders falling off the pace because they couldn't get back up to speed before the yellow flag came out.

Kurt Busch wound up as the leader, followed by Wallace and Nemechek, with everyone else needing another caution to catch them. It never happened as the trio battled for the lead the rest of the way, keeping the field behind them, until Nemechek took over the lead for good on lap 234.

He then took off, building nearly a five-second lead over Wallace with his only challenge being how many cars he would lap.