Nate Ryan, Richmond Times-Dispatch
DAY OF WRECK-ONING:
Gordon Avoids Pileup And Surges To His Third Triumph Of The Season
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- The announcement was as pointless as the pursuit of the car that necessitated its origin.
“Again, we ask please do not throw any objects,” a voice said meekly over the Talladega Superspeedway public address system shortly after the Aaron’s 499 ended yesterday. “We appreciate that.”
So did Jeff Gordon, though he hardly had to worry about being showered by ill will after easily winning another wild affair on the high banks of the 2.66-mile oval.
Twirling donuts through the frontstretch grass, the No. 24 Chevrolet was greeted with raucous cheers and not the cans and bottles of last year’s controversial triumph over Dale Earnhardt Jr.
A green-white-checkered finish, the result of that anticlimactic ending a year ago, ensured there wouldn’t be another disputed finish under caution.
After another wreck-filled Talladega marathon that lasted over four hours, there were hardly enough cars left for a hullabaloo anyway. And when the green flag waved on the longest race in the history of the longest track in NASCAR, there wasn’t anyone in Gordon’s league, either.
Debris or not debris, his 72nd career victory and third this season left the legions of fervent Dale Earnhardt Jr. followers in a sellout crowd of 160,000 too drained to protest.
“This is the most dominating performance that I’ve ever had on a restrictor-plate track,” said Gordon, who upped his win total to 10 at Daytona and Talladega. “The car just did everything I could have asked it to do.”
The four-time champion whipped a depleted field cut in half by calamity over the course of 516 miles yesterday, leading 139 of 194 laps and easily besting Tony Stewart by 0.193 seconds.
With his fourth victory in the past five races at the monstrous ovals where horsepower is harnessed by cutting airflow to the engine, Hendrick Motorsports and Gordon officially have wrestled the restrictor-plate throne away from the Dale Earnhardt Inc. duo of Earnhardt and Michael Waltrip.
“I was amazed they were that strong,” said Waltrip, who finished third. “They could do a lot of things out there that I couldn’t see anybody else doing. They had a really, really good car. When it works well in the draft and has the talent Jeff Gordon has, you just can’t overcome it.”
Stewart and Waltrip certainly tried, forming a two-car nose-to-tail drafting partnership for the final 30 laps. They succeeded briefly on Lap 183, shuffling Gordon out of the lead. Two laps later, he had it back, powering into first with hardly any helpful pushes from other cars.
He wasn’t challenged again.
“Anytime you have two guys working that hard together and you can’t even touch him ... he just had a better car,” Waltrip said.
It was reminiscent of Earnhardt’s recent dominance at Talladega, which the five-time winner was missing yesterday. His Chevy handled well enough to lead three laps but also helped start one crash and was caught in another on the way to 15th -- his worst Talladega showing since a debut 42nd five years ago.
On Lap 133, Earnhardt was pounding on Mike Wallace’s bumper “like a woodpecker,” Earnhardt said, when Jimmie Johnson drifted into Wallace’s line. Earnhardt said that caused the massive wreck that ensued. When the collisions finally stopped, 25 cars were involved in the wreck. A 43-minute red flag was needed to clear the mess as the crash’s victims cleared the air.
“I hope whoever caused it by trying to be King Kong, I hope he got taken out also,” Scott Riggs said.
He got his wish on Lap 187 of a scheduled 188 when a six-car crash collected Earnhardt, Johnson and pole-sitter Kevin Harvick.
“It was that time of the day to start crashing stuff,” Johnson said. “Everyone’s car is real good, and it’s time to go. All those chances you had earlier to lift [the accelerator], you can’t do it anymore.”
The final crash set up a six-lap overtime dreaded by Gordon, who predicted “if we had a fuller field, there probably would have been another wreck.”
But he probably wouldn’t have been in it, given his car had the magical elusiveness that normally belongs to Earnhardt at Talladega.
When Gordon pushed Earnhardt to the lead on Lap 89 and then easily swung around the No. 8 Chevy three laps later, it dawned on him.
“I was like ’Wow, this car’s good. To pass him like that, that’s impressive,’ “ Gordon said. “I’ve sat in my truck after a race saying, ‘Man I don’t know how we’re going to beat [DEI], they have something we don’t have.
“Today we had something that was unstoppable. It’s fun to be on this side of the fence.”