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Nate Ryan
USA Today

Gordon’s nudge wasn’t moving enough

        MARTINSVILLE, Va. – It seemed the perfect moment for playing imitator of “The Intimidator.”

       To tie Dale Earnhardt Sr. on NASCAR’s all-time victory list Sunday, Jeff Gordon needed only to execute a bump-and-run the late seven-time champion became famous for in a career filled with triumphant finishes marked by twisted sheet metal.

         But Gordon didn’t have the permission or the power to pull it off as the Car of Tomorrow seemed to erase a move of yesteryear at Martinsville Speedway.

         Electing not to lay the bumper until the closing laps of the Goody’s Cool Orange 500, and then unable to apply the force necessary to slide the leader up the track, Gordon came up 0.065 seconds – a few feet – behind Jimmie Johnson.

        Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet Impala SS slammed Johnson’s No.48 Chevy several times, but his Hendrick Motorsports teammate hung on for his third Nextel Cup victory this season and the 28th of his career.

         Gordon blamed the inability to move Johnson aside on the next-generation cars, whose bumpers align more perfectly.

         “I nailed him in the middle of the corner so many times, and it didn’t do a thing,” said the four-time champion, who remained stuck on 75 victories and mired in a 24-race winless stretch that dates to Chicagoland Speedway last July. “It actually pushed him away from me. You have to really hit a guy hard to get him out of shape with these bumpers, and nobody wants to race like that.

         “The only way to get by him was to wreck him. I’m not going to wreck a guy to win a race.”

          Gordon still didn’t lack for effort in trying to move Johnson, saying, “I pushed, I shoved and I did just about everything I possibly could. I don’t know if I could have hit him any harder.”

          “I don’t think I would have hit him as many times as hard trying to get by,” Johnson said. “He certainly was being aggressive.”

           Johnson said one of the shots “might have set off an airbag in a street car.” If they had been racing last year’s Martinsville models, whose rear wheels tended to be jacked skyward when nailed from behind, Johnson said the outcome would have changed.

          “I would have been wrecked,” Johnson said. “But these bumpers now hit square. There’s no lift. It’s just a straight shot in the butt.”

         A steely-eyed Gordon seemed to have taken a shot between the eyes as he waited through several postrace interviews on pit road. He didn’t crack a smile after his fourth top-five finish of the year, even after crew chief Steve Letarte provided a hug and whispered words of encouragement in his ear.

        “I really thought we should have won this one,” said Gordon, who led 92 laps. “I’m disappointed that we didn’t.”

        The seven-time Martinsville winner, who nudged aside Bobby Labonte to win at the 0.526-mile oval in 2003, finally grew testy after being asked if he’d applied all the pressure on Johnson that he could.

         “It’s on TV; you watched the video,” Gordon said. “I did everything I could. I finished second; I’m (ticked) off. Sorry.”

         Much of the frustration probably stemmed from the emotions that flared as Gordon and Johnson dueled to deliver a fourth consecutive victory to car owner Rick Hendrick.

           When he closed up on Johnson with 50 laps remaining, Gordon radioed, “Boss, you better give the OK. That’s the only way it’s going to happen.”

         Gordon later said, “I wasn’t asking to wreck him. I was asking to use my bumper a little more.” A week earlier at Bristol Motor Speedway, Hendrick radioed Gordon and Kyle Busch, who finished fourth Sunday, to “think of the big picture“ while racing for the win.

         Hendrick chose to relay the same message Sunday through Letarte and Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief.

        “You don’t have to say much,” Hendrick said. “Everyone realizes it’s going to unravel a lot of hard work. You cross your fingers and hope everyone keeps it straight.”

         Third-place finisher Denny Hamlin said he never expected anything less from Gordon and Johnson, who have been buddies on and off the track. After Johnson ranked last in practice Saturday, his crew borrowed setup information from Gordon’s team.

       “If it was any other set of teammates, maybe,” Hamlin said. “Not really those two.”

       Said Gordon, “If anybody else had been in second but me, he probably wouldn’t have won.”

      And would anyone else, particularly Earnhardt, have asked for permission to punt a rival?

       “Probably not,” Gordon said.