Kevin Harvick was the driver to beat, even Dale Earnhardt Jr. knew that.
But when Harvick made his only mistake of the entire weekend, Earnhardt pounced. It put him back into Victory Lane for the first time this season, and proved that his team has truly turned around after struggling through all of last year.
"For 80 percent of that race, Kevin Harvick had the best car," Earnhardt said after winning the Crown Royal 400 at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night.
"I made a charge on him, but I sort of conceded the win to him and was just going to race for second."
Harvick, who led 272 of the 400 laps, was racing for his second weekend sweep of the season. He won the Busch Series race on Friday night, just hours after announcing he had signed a three-year extension with Richard Childress Racing.
But one bad pit call ruined it.
Harvick decided not to stop during the eighth caution of the race, while Earnhardt and the other contenders all ducked in for fresh tires. The ramifications were obvious less than 40 laps later when several cars were right on Harvick's bumper.
Denny Hamlin, Earnhardt and Kyle Busch all blew past him, and Harvick never led again.
Busch was out front after taking the lead following another round of pit stops, but he couldn't hold off Earnhardt and Hamlin, who both raced their way past him with 44 laps to go.
Earnhardt then held off Hamlin for several more restarts to snap his 27-race winless streak. Coming off the worst season of his career, this victory proves just how far his team has come since missing out on the Chase for the championship last year.
"I think we are there," he said. "We keep taking our shots, but we're pretty competitive and I'm real proud of the team I got," he said. "Everything is working really great. I couldn't ask for any position on this team to be any better.
"I'm just glad to be back in Victory Lane. It feels really great."
Long overdue for a win, he celebrated his 17th career Nextel Cup victory and third at Richmond with perfect doughnuts along the frontstetch, spinning his No. 8 Chevrolet until it was engulfed in thick, white smoke and his tire had exploded.
Earnhardt won last July in Chicago -- his only victory of 2005. But he has reunited with crew chief Tony Eury Jr. this season, and the two had made quiet strides with a handful of solid finishes this season.
Now he's got a win, and it moved him up two spots in the standings to sixth. He trails leader Jimmie Johnson by 216 points.