FONTANA, Calif. -- The moment Rusty Wallace drove past the checkered flag on Sunday, he began thinking about longtime friend Dale Earnhardt.
He celebrated what would have been Earnhardt's 50th birthday by taking a flag-waving victory lap following his dominating performance in the NAPA Auto Parts 500.
After holding off two-time California Speedway winner Jeff Gordon in a 19-lap shootout at the end of the 250-lap event, Wallace stopped across from his pit and waited while one of his Penske Racing South crewmen brought out a flag, bearing Earnhardt's colors and his famed No. 3.
"He was such a good friend of mine. I always wanted to do something special for Dale when he lost his life," Wallace said of his former racing rival and hunting partner, who was killed in a crash Feb. 18 in the Daytona 500. "We had the flag all put together at Rockingham (the week after Daytona).
"My plan was to ride around with the flag and have (Earnhardt's car owner) Richard Childress help me with it at Rockingham because I really thought I was going to win the race."
Wallace finished seventh in that race and wound up postponing the tribute to Earnhardt until Sunday's race, the 10th of the season.
Wallace drove slowly around the 2-mile oval, holding the flag high outside the driver's side window of his No. 2 Ford as many in the crowd of about 120,000 stood and cheered both the race winner and the memory of Earnhardt.
"The doggone thing was so big and so heavy that I couldn't run but about 25 miles an hour," Wallace said, laughing. "It was ready to blow out of my hand, so that was the reason for such a slow lap."
Wallace's 54th career win was his first since last Aug. 26 in Bristol, Tenn., and moved him within one of NASCAR pioneer Lee Petty, who is seventh on the victory list.
The winner, who averaged 114.118 mph, started 19th in the 43-car field and took most of the first half of the race to move into contention. Once Wallace took the lead for the first time on lap 151, he was able to stay at or near the front, leading 95 of the final 99 laps, including the final 47.
Wallace had built a lead of nearly 4 seconds -- nearly a full straightaway -- and appeared on the way to a runaway before crash involving Ward Burton and Mark Martin brought out the sixth and final caution flag of the race on lap 224.
Burton, somewhat disoriented after getting out of his battered car, was taken by helicopter to a hospital for a CT scan. He also had a small cut on his chin.
When the green flag waved for the final restart on lap 232, Gordon's Chevrolet was tucked right behind Wallace's Taurus and the two quickly moved away from the rest of the pack.
Gordon, who won two of the four previous Winston Cup races here, tried hard to catch the leader but never got closer than about two car-lengths before crossing the finish line 0.270 seconds -- about four car-lengths -- behind.
"Once I got to two car-lengths, it seemed like my car just stopped," Gordon said. "That's as close as I could get to him.
"The only way I was going tog et him was if he made a big, big mistake, and a guy like Rusty doesn't do that. He deserved to win. He had the fastest car at the end."
Wallace said he was very aware of Gordon's No. 24 looming in his mirrors over those final laps.
"When you see Jeff behind you, you're always worried, especially when he's working the high lane, the low lane, all over," Wallace said. "I didn't know if he had something else for us at the end."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. came on at the end for a strong third-place finish -- his best showing since finishing second in Daytona.
"I didn't think about it being my dad's 50th birthday until I heard something on the P.A.," he said. "It felt really good, especially after we had a good showing and finally got to running the way we like to. That moved us up to 10th place in the season points."
Tony Stewart wound up fourth, followed by defending race winner Jeremy Mayfield, Ricky Rudd, Jimmy Spencer, Jerry Nadeau and Sterling Marlin.
Series leader Dale Jarrett finished 24th after losing a cylinder late in the race. Combined with Gordon's runner-up finish, that cut Jarrett's points lead from 145 to 66 after 10 of 36 races.