UAW/Ford 500: For Jeff Gordon, Only the Last Lap Matters
Writer's memo to the Jeff Gordon haters:
Ha ha! He got you again!
Jeff Gordon led less than half a lap at Talladega Superspeedway Sunday in the UAW/Ford 500 NASCAR Nextel Cup Series race.
That was all it took to score his record-setting 12th restrictor-plate track win.
Yes, that means Gordon has claimed yet another title from the late Dale Earnhardt Sr.—King of the Plate Tracks.
Gordon now has 80 career victories, only five short of third place on the all-time list. Sunday's win was his sixth at 'Dega, breaking a tie with future teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The crew of Gordon's No. 24 Dupont/Pepsi Chevy knew his car was good—so good they parked it after Friday's first practice and skipped Happy Hour.
When qualifying time came on Saturday, though, Gordon’s speed landed him near the back of the 43-car field.
The team strategy was patience—keeping Gordon at the back of the pack for most of the race. Time and again, Gordon pitted later than the leaders in an attempt to lead a lap and gain five bonus points in the championship standings...but those efforts were in vain, as the other drivers stayed on the track to trump him.
At one point, a pass-through penalty for an air hose dragged out of the pit area put the 24 in the unenviable position of being all alone on a superspeedway—without drafting help, you're liable to be lapped by the race leaders.
As luck would have it, though, a 10-car crash allowed Gordon to remain on the lead lap and resume his position at the front of the field.
It wasn't until Michael Waltrip's blown tire produced a four-car wreck with 14 laps remaining that Gordon and Hendrick teammates Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears made their move. After the restart, it was an eight-lap battle on the 2.66-mile track.
Johnson was on point with one lap to go—not where he wanted to be. Look up "sitting duck" in Webster's and you'll find this:
"Leader of a race at Talladega when the White Flag flies."
As the field roared down the backstretch, Dave Blaney gave the 24 a bump that left Gordon with a decision to make:
Bump Jimmie and give him the win, or swerve right—into Tony Stewart's path—and go for the victory
Gordon went for the win, Johnson tried and failed to block, and Stewart slammed into the back of the 24 to launch Gordon past JJ.
The win gave Gordon a nine-point lead over defending champion Johnson, with Clint Bowyer trailing by 63 points.
Behind them, nine other Chase contenders are struggling for breath, on life support, or have given up the ghost entirely with six races to go.
Given Gordon's and Johnson's success on upcoming tracks, Bowyer will be hard-pressed to keep pace.
Gordon won at Phoenix earlier this season, and led late at Texas. Johnson nosed the 24 out at Martinsville and took the win at Atlanta.
Combined, the teammates have 11 wins and 12 poles in 30 races this year. The Chase for the Nextel Cup may well be a two-horse event.
Those who questioned Hendrick's dominance in the first third of the season need only know one thing:
Jeff Gordon knows which lap to lead better than anyone in the field.
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