Nemechek wins Pop Secret 400

Monday, November 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. (AP) _ Joe Nemechek is doing his best to end his roller-coaster season on a high note.

Nemechek, badly injured in a wreck early this season and leaving his team at the end of the year, won the second race of his career Sunday with a dominating performance at North Carolina Speedway.

He led 196 of the 393 laps and was barely challenged in the Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 400, beating Kenny Wallace to the finish line by more than six seconds.

It was his first win since 1999 and came six months after he was injured in a wreck while testing his Busch series car. Nemechek, who broke his shoulder and bruised his lungs in the wreck, missed five races while he healed.

``You talk about that wreck and I almost broke my neck in that,'' he said. ``Then, I didn't know how long it would take to get back in a race car. Now, to come back and win in the same season _ especially here at The Rock _ is great.''

It was also satisfying for car owner Andy Petree, who is losing Nemechek at the end of the season because his No. 33 Chevrolet is losing its sponsor. The team will fold if Petree can't find another sponsor, so Nemechek is leaving, most likely to drive a Ford for Travis Carter.

But Petree, who got his first win as an owner earlier this year when Bobby Hamilton won at Talladega, didn't want to talk about his second team's status after Nemechek's win.

``The only thing I know is that I won't go to Daytona without a sponsor,'' he said. ``But we won't worry about that now, I'm just savoring this one.''

Just like Wallace was savoring his second-place finish, which capped a remarkable weekend for the youngest brother of former series champion Rusty Wallace.

Filling in for the injured Steve Park in the Chevrolet Park drove to victory here in February, Wallace tied his career best finish and won the pole for this race. He also won the Busch series race on Saturday in another car.

``If second is as bad as I've done all weekend, that's a pretty incredible week,'' Wallace said. ``I'd like to take some credit, and I'm thrilled to death, but this car was great. We had great pit stops all day and these guys did great and we were real consistent.''

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.

``Man, we were pathetic out there,'' Gordon said. ``I can't remember the last time we were that bad.''

It allowed Rudd, his closest competitor in the title chase, to gain 54 points. Rudd did it despite needing a provisional to make the race, almost blowing his right front tire before his first pit stop and having a jammed air gun on his second stop.

``All in all, it was a pretty good day,'' Rudd said. ``I'm a little disappointed, but we overcame a lot and picked up a few points.''

But it will still take a miracle for Rudd to catch Gordon. 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.

``I've been telling you guys it doesn't matter what kind of lead we have, we can still have trouble that can hurt us,'' Gordon said. ``The good thing is we only have a few races left.''

Nemechek 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.