RICHMOND, Va. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his team are making all the right calls and showing why he's NASCAR's biggest star.
Gambling that he could win on tires and fuel with 54 laps to go, Earnhardt made it happen Saturday night, outrunning Jimmie Johnson and Bobby Labonte over the last 45 laps for his third victory of the season.
"It was a great race car, just had a great long-run setup on it,'' Earnhardt said after his 12th career victory and second at Richmond International Raceway. "I passed (Johnson) on the outside. I don't know where that came from. I told him I felt like my daddy for five minutes.''
Earnhardt took the lead when Tony Stewart and most of the other contenders pitted for tires and fuel during the ninth and final caution on the 344th lap. Johnson and Jeff Gordon also stayed out.
Earnhardt made the move look brilliant, gradually building a lead of more than 3 seconds and finally beating Johnson by 1.481 seconds.
"It was real loose on new tires, so pitting wasn't really an option. Staying out was the thing to do,'' he said. "Man what a great race track.''
Earnhardt also padded his lead over Johnson in the Nextel Cup championship race. He came in leading by 25, and now leads by 40.
At the end, thousands of fans of NASCAR's biggest star stood with a triumphant No. 1 wagging in the air, a tribute to his dominant victory. He answered with a smokey spinout on the frontstretch to more roars.
"I don't know if we had the best car tonight. Being out front at the end was where you needed to be,'' Earnhardt said. "So that's what we did.''
Earnhardt led five times for a race-high 115 laps.
Labonte was third and Stewart fourth, giving Chevrolet the top four spots in the Chevy American Revolution 400. Matt Kenseth was fifth in a Ford, followed by Gordon, Mark Martin and pole-sitter Brian Vickers.
Johnson was expecting at least a two-car battle at the end.
"I really felt like I had something for Junior the way the lap times were at the end,'' he said of arriving at his decision to stay out. "Once we went under caution and then went back out, Junior just took off.''
Earnhardt, Johnson and Gordon assumed the top spots when Stewart, as the leader, and the rest of the contenders surprisingly headed for the pits when Scott Riggs blown engine brought out the ninth caution.
Earnhardt quickly showed it was a good call when he took off on the restart with 45 laps to go with Johnson following, Gordon third, Stewart fourth and Bobby Labonte fifth -- all having broken from the field.
Gordon was the first to falter, sliding up the track in the fourth turn just four laps into the green flag run, but he lost just one spot while Labonte sneaked inside Stewart for third at about the same time.
Earnhardt's lead was 1½ seconds over Johnson and Labonte with 25 laps to go on, while Stewart's car gradually began fading from contention.
It never mattered as Earnhardt steadily pulled away.
Earlier, Michael Waltrip and Stewart engaged in one of the longest, closest duels, with Stewart keeping his Chevrolet on Waltrip's tail for more than 20 laps, unable to get by until Waltrip wiggled on lap 250.
Stewart sailed by and quickly built a lead of more than three seconds as Waltrip eventually yielded second to Earnhardt. Once Earnhardt took the spot, he started reeling in the leader in lapped traffic until a series of green-flag pit stop jumbled the field to set up the finish.
The first half of the race was messy, but not because of the track as the drivers found two racing grooves and passed in either one.
The lead changed hands 11 times, with Earnhardt leading three times for 55 laps. There also were seven cautions flags lasting 45 laps.
The last one, only a few laps before the midpoint, came as Virginia native Jeff Burton challenged Jeremy Mayfield for the lead coming out of the fourth turn. But as Burton pulled alongside, the rear of his car lost its grip and he spun backward into the frontstretch infield grass.
Burton finished 14th, his 87th consecutive race without a victory.