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Race Coverage, Non-Daily
Third Place
Kenny Bruce, NASCAR Scene

Right On Time

Cautious until the end, Jeff Gordon winds up in the right place at the right time to win again at Talladega

Who knows how he does it? Who can say for certain exactly what it is that Jeff Gordon sees, or what it is that he does – often at precisely the right moment – that allows him to wind up in the winners circle?

     Eighty times he’s done it now. Six times at Talladega Superspeedway. Five times this season.

     Maybe racing at Talladega is a crapshoot, where the dice are rolled 188 times and there’s plenty of opportunity to crap out. But if that’s truly the case, then how is it that Gordon, 36, keeps rolling up a winner?

     He beat the house again in the UAW-Ford 500 – with little time to spare, perhaps, but he came up a winner just the same. His No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet didn’t dominate. He didn’t benefit from some bizarre set of circumstances. He merely put himself in position to win, and in the end, that proved to be enough.

     In the very end, we might add.

     Gordon’s last-lap pass of Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson pushed him back into the lead in the Chase For The Nextel Cup. Johnson is nine points back, but likely still wondering how it came to be that his lead vanished without a trace.

     Even Gordon seemed a bit perplexed at how he ended up with the win instead of his teammate.
     “What I don’t understand is how I ever got by my teammate,” Gordon said, “because I was there behind him and got a couple of pushes. But when the 12 [Ryan Newman] and I think the No. 2 [Kurt Busch] were on the outside of me, I was really just kind of stuck there.”

     Of course, at Talladega, no lead is safe. Positions continuously change from the drop of the green flag until the checkered is unfurled hours later. Gordon may have been hemmed in, but he wasn’t counted out.

     “When they got three-wide, I thought this was my opportunity,” he said. “I got a push from the 22 [of Dave Blaney] and I went with the momentum. Luckily, when I got high and Jimmie tried to block me, the 20 [of Tony Stewart] was there and had nowhere to go. He drilled me and he’s the one that pushed me to the front.”

     Chasing when he took the white flag, Gordon was out front when he roared out of Turn 4 the final time. Johnson finished a close second, just 0.066 second behind, while Blaney, Denny Hamlin and Newman rounded out the top five.

     Casey Mears, Busch, Stewart, Tony Raines and Reed Sorenson were sixth through 10th, respectively.

     When Gordon says he goes “with the momentum,” he could be talking about pushes from fellow competitors or that less-evident mental push that keeps a dream alive. But there’s no doubt that momentum put him out front on the race track and momentum from the win put him back in the driver’s seat for this year’s title.

     Not a bad result from a race – NASCAR’s first with the car of tomorrow at a restrictor-plate track – in which he admitted he basically drove around in the back of the pack for most of the afternoon. Fans of his – there were a few among the announced crowd of 155,000 – no doubt wondered what was wrong with the four-time champion as he diced and dueled with others in hotly-contested battles for positions outside the top 35. Perhaps it wasn’t pretty, he said, but it seemed a necessary evil going into a race where few teams knew what to expect.

     “That was the hardest three-quarters of a race that I’ve ever had to run before,” Gordon said. “Basically, our qualifying (he started 34th) determined what our strategy was going to be. I knew there was going to be a bunch of bumping and banging with this new rules package. I didn’t know what to expect [and] we’ve got a championship on the line.

     “We avoided the wrecks and all of a sudden we found ourselves up in the top 15 with about 25 or 30 [laps] to go and held on there. We got shuffled back there a little bit but once they started getting inside of us, it was time to go with nine to go and it all worked out.”

     There was one bit of trouble for the driver who now has more restrictor-plate wins than anyone – a penalty for removing equipment from his pit box on lap 139. Forced to pit a second time before the field resumed green-flag racing, Gordon found himself in danger of going a lap down before fate intervened. A multicar crash on lap 145 not only kept him on the lead lap, but because of the penalty, Gordon was safely out of harm’s way when the accident unfolded in Turn 4.

     “Sometimes those things work for you and sometimes they work against you,” he said. “That one worked for us. ... It could have really bitten us and put us completely out of the race.”

     Johnson, the defending series champion, had worked his way to the front on lap 183, buzzing past Newman, Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya following a late restart. It was Gordon’s drafting help that got Johnson out front, but his teammate had other ideas when the final lap began to play itself out.
     “I was doing all I could on the bottom to defend that bottom lane and not get caught in the middle or anything,” Johnson said. “It would have been a problem ... on that last lap trying to defend and block [Gordon]. But there was more going on behind me than I could really see.

     “Evidently [Stewart] had a big run. Jeff moved up in front of it and it was a strong enough run to push him by me and I couldn’t even side-draft him and slow him down.”

     While he likely won’t shed any tears over his runnerup finish, Johnson said, “When you get that close to winning, it’s tough.

     “But our big-picture racing today was really smart. We paid close attention to where the action was on the track and kind of held out in the back and then went up there and raced for the thing at the end and almost won it.”

     Gordon’s nine-point advantage (5,690-5,681) may be minuscule, but the two Hendrick cars are quickly distancing themselves from the rest of the Chase pack. For now, at least.

     Hamlin’s fourth-place finish moved him out of the Chase basement but didn’t exactly put the Joe Gibbs Racing driver in the penthouse. He’s now ninth, and trails by 262 points. In fact, only Clint Bowyer (11th in the race and third in the standings, 63 points behind Gordon) and Stewart (154 points behind Gordon) are within 200 points of the leader.

     “It was pretty exciting, those last few laps, a lot of pushing and shoving going on there, but everyone did a good job of holding their line there at the end,” said Hamlin, who rallied after getting caught up in a wreck. “Everyone was driving kind of crazy, but it was cautious at the same time. We just got behind there when we got a little bit of damage, but this whole ... crew did a good job putting it back together. We were able to march our way to the front there at the end.”

     Other Chase drivers weren’t as fortunate. Jeff Burton (43rd) and Martin Truex Jr. (42nd) were both victims of failed engines and are now each 300 or more points out of the title hunt. Early tire troubles spoiled the day for Matt Kenseth, who finished 26th, while Kevin Harvick wound up 20th.

     Busch, rooted out of the lead battle by Johnson and Gordon, described it simply as survival.

     “We didn’t quite lead a lap,” said Busch, who edged up from ninth to seventh in the point standings. “It would have been nice to get the five bonus points for that.

     “All in all we consider this a big success. You want to win every race you can but if you can’t, you need a top-10 finish.”

     Younger brother Kyle Busch fell from sixth to eighth in the Chase, and saw his chance at a decent finish end when he was caught up in the day’s biggest accident, an 11-car melee that began when Bobby Labonte crashed in turns 3 and 4 on lap 145.

     “Just a product of restrictor-plate racing,” Kyle Busch said of the accident. “I guess Bobby lost a tire or something like that. Nothing of his doing, [he] just came right across the race track. We were the first one that hit him.”

     Meanwhile, back behind the carnage, Gordon no doubt breathed a sigh of relief.