While Rusty Wallace was ending a 59-race winless string, Jeff Gordon was all but clinching his third Winston Cup championship in Sunday's rain-shortened Dura-Lube 500.
Wallace, who hadn't won since March of 1997 in Richmond, Va., was declared the winner after rain halted the scheduled 312-lap event after 257 trips around the one-mile oval at Phoenix International Raceway.NASCAR officials tried to wait out the wet weather, but eventually had to give in to the inevitable as rain continued, thunder boomed and streaks of lightning lit up the desert track.
Mark Martin, working hard in an apparently futile effort to catch Gordon, had just taken over second place on a pit stop when the race was stopped. Gordon came out of pit lane in seventh place.
The rain ended Gordon's chance to extend his string of top-five finishes to 18, which would have matched the record set by David Pearson in 1968.
The result also cut Gordon's lead over Martin from 358 to 329 points, but left the defending series champ and winner of two of the last three titles with a virtual lock on the 1998 championship.
The 27-year-old racer needs only to finish 40th or better next week in Rockingham, N.C., or simply to start each of the last two races to wrap up another crown.
Wallace, 42, picked up the 48th victory, tying him for 10th with NASCAR pioneer Herb Thomas on the career list.
Ken Schrader started from the pole, and led the first 53 laps before falling back into the field, That's when Wallace took command, moving to the lead for the first time on lap 54 and leading all but eight laps thereafter.
The challengers remained close for a while as the field was kept bunched up by two early caution flags.
The first came on lap 11 when David Green and Jeremy Mayfield tangled in turn one, and another came on lap 43 when Brett Bodine had a tire go down and hit the wall between turns one and two.
After that, the green flag remained out from lap 51 until lap 182, when rookie Kenny Irwin stopped in the third turn. By that time, Wallace was solidly in charge in his Ford, holding leads of up to a full straightaway on his closest competitor.
Rain began falling as the field was under the fourth caution flag of the day, brought out on 247 when rookie Jerry Nadeau spun and slammed rear-end first into the wall between turns one and two.
The leaders pitted, and Wallace easily led the way back onto the track moments before a hard rain came down, bringing out the red flag and sending many in the crowd of more than 100,000 scurrying for their cars.
NASCAR waited almost an hour before ending the race.
Dale Earnhardt wound up third, followed by Jeff Burton, Ted Musgrave, John Andretti and Gordon.
Terry Labonte, who started a record 600th consecutive race, wound up 10th.