DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) _ Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon both felt like winners at Darlington Raceway, even though only Gordon left with the Dodge Avenger 500 victory.
Earnhardt had thrown NASCAR into a frenzy with his decision to leave DEI _ the company founded by his late father _ and wasn't certain heading into the weekend he had the support of his crew members or fans.
Junior was worried for nothing. His fans were as boisterous as ever while his crew ended a high-pressure week with an eighth-place finish.
``Fortunately, when things go good, all your problems are gone,'' Earnhardt said.
Gordon had problems all race long. His engine nearly blew, his radiator ran hot and he thought teammate Jimmie Johnson would run him down at the end. Even Gordon's mother, there for pre-race introductions, wasn't around as her son took the checkered flag on Nextel Cup's first Mother's Day race in 21 years after rain Saturday night delayed things until Sunday.
``They bailed on me,'' Gordon said, laughing. ``I can't wait to call and chew them out.''
Still, Gordon had plenty to celebrate with his seventh Darlington win and 78th career Nextel Cup victory. It was the eighth win in the past nine races _ including a perfect 5-of-5 in Car of Tomorrow events _ for Hendrick Motorsports.
Gordon finished in front of Denny Hamlin, who complained that NASCAR didn't throw a caution at the end with gunk and car parts on the track when it could've given him a chance for victory.
``And of course, if caution comes out, it's game over,'' said Hamlin, who won the Busch race here Friday night. ``Instead, Hendrick gets another break.''
Jimmie Johnson, last week's winner, finished third for Hendrick. Ryan Newman was fourth, followed by Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth.
For a while, Earnhardt looked like he would pull off the fairy-tale ending. He rose as high as third in the closing laps with No. 8 fans stomping the front-stretch grandstand in celebration. But Junior couldn't keep up with the leaders and faded back.
Still, it gave him a third straight top 10 at Darlington _ and renewed affection for his team and supporters.
Earnhardt recalled how his crew pulled him aside when he arrived at Darlington, a day after declaring his free agency _ a move expected to land him a windfall and the attention of NASCAR's top owners.
Team members told him, `` 'We're behind you 100 percent all year,' `` Earnhardt said.
There was no chance they wouldn't be, no matter where the driver ends up next season, said Earnhardt's crew chief, Tony Eury Jr.
``We're ready to go,'' Eury said. ``Our plans haven't changed with what we're going to do this year. We'll keep digging.''
That's not the case for Gordon and his group.
Good things keep happening, whatever circumstances they encounter.
Gordon said he was in a sour mood all weekend and didn't stop grousing about his car during the race. But like so many other times in their sun-kissed season, Gordon came out on top.
Why? Not even Gordon has a handle on that one.
``To me, we won a race today that (we) probably shouldn't have,'' he said.
And it most likely came down to letting Gordon stay out on the track during a late caution when others went for pit stops.
Gordon said his overheating engine got worse during the stops ``so I wanted to keep moving.''
Crew chief Steve Letarte told Gordon not to pit ``and I thought it was a great call,'' Gordon said.
The victory, Gordon's fourth this season, increased his Nextel Cup points lead to 231 over Johnson, his teammate and defending series champion.
Gordon's season is set to improve _ certainly off the track. He and his wife, Ingrid Vandebosch, are expecting a daughter at the end of June. This was the final time she could travel to a race before the birth.
``It was fantastic to just think that here in about six or seven weeks, she is going to be a mother,'' Gordon said. ``She had a little tear in her eye, definitely her emotions and the hormones are flowing right now.''