Sunday, October 7, 2007
Gordon's patient approach earns sixth Talladega victory
By Terry Blount
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Sandbagging, playing possum, call it whatever you wish.
Jeff Gordon fooled everyone Sunday, coasting around in the back most of the day and patiently waiting for his moment to shine.
It came with half a lap to go in the UAW-Ford 500. Gordon pulled to the fastest line at just the right instant, zooming by teammate Jimmie Johnson to win the first Car of Tomorrow race on a restrictor-plate track.
The COT, the old car, probably even a tractor if he had to, Gordon can get it done at Talladega.
Gordon swept the two Nextel Cup races this year on the giant 2.66-mile oval, becoming the only driver to win in two types of cars on the same track in a season. He won in the old model in April.
This victory moved him back to the top spot in the Chase with six races remaining, leading Johnson by nine points.
Gordon has six wins at Talladega, including four in the past eight Alabama races. But he'd never won one like this.
The Hendrick Motorsports duo of Gordon and Johnson didn't try to get to the front for more than 140 laps of the 188-lap race. The strategy was to hang back and see what happened.
And Gordon didn't like it one bit.
"It was terrible," Gordon said. "That was the hardest thing I've ever had to do in a race car. I've never yawned in a race car before, but I was yawning back there today."
Crew chief Steve Letarte was doing the same on the pit box, but he didn't waver from the plan.
"I hate hanging back, but it really wasn't a hard decision," Letarte said. "No one knew what would happen in this race. We felt we had to do it."
Gordon still had his doubts Sunday morning.
"We talked about it before the race," Gordon said. "I didn't want to do it. I said, 'I can't do this.' But I changed my mind because Steve convinced me. There were so many unknowns on this car that we decided to play it safe."
The unknowns in the COT caused the drivers to play it safe most of the race, but the carnage eventually came.
The typical "Big One" happened with 43 laps to go, and 11 cars were involved. It included three Chase drivers -- Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.
"That's when we decided it was time to go racing," Johnson said. "It was tough to wait, but the patience worked."
The strategy almost backfired on Gordon a few laps earlier when he ran over a hose in the pits and had to serve a pass-through penalty. He fell three-quarters of a lap behind, a big problem when you lose the main pack at Talladega.
Letarte wasn't concerned: "Don't worry," Letarte told Gordon. "We're going to get a caution."
When the Big One happened, Gordon was so far back that he easily stayed out of the melee. Then he was back in position to make his move.
Once team orders came to mash the gas, Johnson and Gordon were like two champion thoroughbreds getting the whip and heading for home.
Down the stretch they came, appearing to effortlessly pick off cars as they pushed to the front. On the final restart with eight laps to go, things had changed. Johnson was fourth and Gordon was 11th.
|Jeff Gordon, top, gets a push from Tony Stewart to beat teammate Jimmie Johnson on the final lap.|
Ryan Newman had the lead, but one car, the best car most of the day, also was formulating his final game plan to win the race. That was Tony Stewart, who was seventh on the last restart.
Everyone knew Stewart was the man to beat, so no one wanted to help him in the draft. While Stewart was using all his skills to lead a line to the front, Johnson and Gordon already were there.
Johnson was first and Gordon was second on the inside line as they took the white flag, but the Stewart train was coming. Stewart got a run on the outside down the backstretch.
A victory was within his grasp, but Gordon took it away. He swapped lines and jumped in front of Stewart at just the right moment.
"That changed everything," Gordon said. "I thought Jimmie was going to win the race. But that was my opportunity. I didn't really see Tony, but my spotter told me the run was coming. The 20 [Stewart] drilled me and pushed me to the front."
By the time they got to the checkered flag, Stewart had fallen to eighth, losing more points to the Chase leaders.
Stewart is one of the best at plate racing, but he still has a thing or two to learn from Gordon. Sunday's victory was the 80th of Gordon's career, but it also made him the all-time leader with 12 restrictor-plate wins in Cup events, passing Dale Earnhardt.
"I can't believe that," Gordon said. "Dale is still the master as far as I'm concerned. Heck, I still can't believe I won this one."
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
I didn't really see Tony, but my spotter told me the run was coming. The 20 [Stewart] drilled me and pushed me to the front.
-- Jeff Gordon