Dale Earnhardt, Jr. bested a track record with the closet margin of victory, .291 seconds, on his way to his first NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series win at Chicagoland Speedway in the USG Sheetrock 400 this afternoon. This is Earnhardt Jr.’s first victory of the season, placing him only 91 points out of contention for the Chase for the NEXTEL Cup.

Earnhardt Jr. earned the victory despite leading for a track-low 11 laps. It wasn’t until his crew chief, Steve Hmiel, made a risky decision for his last pit stop that he was able to establish a minimal lead.

“I was sitting there riding along and really hoping to finish the race without any cautions because I thought we were really fortune to be in the top five,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Then the caution came out and I said, ‘Steve what do you want to do…could you put me in front with two tires and maybe I can hold them off and have a chance to get away from them a little bit.’ Steve definitely agreed and he made the call to do it.”

The No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet team started in the 25th position, but managed to fight its way up the top and eventually edge out second-place Matt Kenseth, who started 21 positions ahead of Earnhardt.

Kenseth led for a track-best 176 laps, surpassing the record of 160 laps set by Tony Stewart in 2004. Kenseth battled the No. 8 Budweiser car throughout the final three laps, trailing him by only 0.5 seconds after lap 265. Earnhardt Jr. was able to hold off the No. 17 USG Sheetrock/DeWalt, but Kenseth earned his fourth top-10 finish in his last six races, placing him 202 points back of a top-10 ranking.

“Today we didn’t make up a lot of points on the leader, obviously, he finished right behind me,” said Kenseth. “So obviously we didn’t gain much on the leader, but we are gaining on the top 10. It seems like we figured something out that helps us perform better about three or four weeks ago, and if we can keep our performance how it is and not have problems, I think we can still get back in it.”

Jimmie Johnson, who started the day in the pole position after recording the fast qualifying time at Chicagoland Speedway history, finished in third place. He has now recorded four top-five finishes in as many races at Chicagoland Speedway.

Brian Vickers, Tony Stewart, Jeremy Mayfield, Ricky Rudd, Kurt Busch, Casey Mears and Mark Martin rounded out the top 10.

Johnson remains in the first spot with 2,548 points, followed by Greg Biffle (-108); Stewart (-151); Rusty Wallace (-248); and Elliot Sadler (-318).

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