TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s not in Jeff Gordon’s nature to go slow, and asking the four-time series champion to ride aimlessly around in the back of the pack is unheard of.
But with all the unknowns surrounding Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, it seemed to be the safest strategy. Still, he resisted, and even told car owner Rick Hendrick he wouldn’t do it.
Gordon apparently had a change of heart, agreeing to turn parade laps for much of the race before surging past Jimmie Johnson on the final lap and holding off his teammate to become the career victory leader at restrictor-plate tracks.
“It was the hardest race I’ve ever had to be in. I’ve never had that type of mind-set before,” Gordon said. “I’ve never done that before. I even told Rick Hendrick earlier in the week that some guys were talking about that strategy, and I can’t do it — I think we’ve got to get out there and race and let the chips fall where they may.
“I changed that ... and it was tough because I don’t like just going out there and riding in the back. I want to be out there battling for the lead and leading laps.”
He parlayed his decision into his 12th career plate win and sixth victory this season, and moved back on top of the points standings. He leads Johnson by nine points with six races remaining in the Chase for the championship.
But it was a bizarre way to do it by Gordon’s standards.
Fears over the Car of Tomorrow’s plate debut and former Formula One champion Jacques Villeneuve’s first Nextel Cup event had the entire field concerned the race would be one big demolition derby.
So Gordon decided he’d avoid the mess by staying in the back and found himself yawning in his race car for the first time in his career.
Gordon had a horrible qualifying effort. He started 34th, and it put him at the back, where he never tried to move from. He then suffered a late-race setback when he pulled out of his pit with a hose hanging from his car, earning a pass-through penalty that seemed to take him out of contention.
Still, he sat back, resisting the urge to charge to the front.
“It was terrible. I am telling you that was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in a race car,” Gordon said. “I like to think that I have pretty good patience, but that’s beyond patience.
“There’s just nothing fun about that, but I knew it was the smart thing.”
A master at working the draft, Gordon eventually marched toward the front and had moved into the top 15 as the race neared its completion. With six laps to go, he was in the middle of a Hendrick Motorsports charge that saw Johnson, Gordon and Casey Mears surge to the front of the pack.
Gordon was stuck behind Johnson, though, and waited until the last lap to make a move toward the front. He finally jumped up high, squeezing in between Johnson and the Penske cars of Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch.
Just as Johnson tried to block him, two-time series champion Tony Stewart slid onto Gordon’s bumper and gave him a huge push into the lead. Gordon led just one lap — the last one — to complete a season sweep at Talladega.
“I wasn’t happy with getting passed, but that would have been the situation with anybody,” said Johnson, who finished second. “To get that close and not win is a letdown. There must have been stuff going on behind me that I couldn’t see, but Jeff could in his mirror, and he pulled up and got in front of the 20 (Stewart) and was able to take advantage of that push.”
Dave Blaney was third in the best finish this year for a Toyota driver. Title contender Denny Hamlin was fourth and was followed by Ryan Newman, who was leading late in his Dodge, and Mears.
Chase driver Kurt Busch was seventh and Stewart, who was in position to win this race very late, had two strategic moves backfire and was shuffled back to eighth.
This race blew open the Chase for the championship standings, as Gordon and Johnson positioned themselves for a Hendrick battle toward the title. Third-place driver Clint Bowyer finished 11th, but fell 63 points behind the leader.
Stewart dropped 154 points out and everyone else is more than 200 points behind.
The entire industry was tense about this race leading up to the green flag because of a combination of the CoT and Villeneuve, who was widely criticized for picking Talladega for his first start.
But Villeneuve, who qualified sixth, dropped to the very back of the pack at the start and stayed out of everyone’s way as he quietly finished 21st.
“I’m glad that I didn’t create any problems with the drivers,” he said. “The finger was being pointed before the race, and that was understandable. The goal was to stay out of trouble and not make enemies.”
The garage-wide fear of multiple wrecks because of dangerous driving conditions everyone expected from the CoT didn’t materialize until the first big accident with 44 laps to go. And that was more of a fluke than it was a product of Talladega’s treacherous racing — Bobby Labonte had some sort of mechanical failure that caused his car to squirt down the track and into Chase driver Kyle Busch.
The contact started an 11-car accident that also collected title contenders Matt Kenseth and Hamlin, although Hamlin suffered only cosmetic damage.
But it destroyed Busch and Kenseth’s cars, and marked the second consecutive week that title favorite Busch found himself in the wrong place. He was wrecked last week by Dale Earnhardt Jr., and has gone from 10 points out of the lead two weeks ago to seventh in the standings, 260 points out.
“It’s unfortunate for our Chase chances, but we knew that Talladega was going to be our mulligan We circled it on the calendar that this was going to be the one we were going to wreck in,” Busch said. “The team of course wants to be optimistic, and they want me to be optimistic, but I’m sorry, it’s the realism that sets in that you are so far back that it’s going to take a lot to get back in this deal.”
Trouble also hit Chase drivers Jeff Burton and Martin Truex Jr., who both suffered from engine problems that ended their race early. Truex finished 42nd, Burton was 43rd and both declared their title hopes over.
“I suspect this is just too much for us to overcome regarding the championship,” Burton said.
“Without any freaky luck for anyone else, we’re pretty much out of it,” he said.
The issues with the engines, built by both Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Richard Childress Racing, put a fear in the other five teams who use the same motors and it came true when Earnhardt’s blew up.
Earnhardt, trying to end a 55-race winless streak in his final event at DEI with crew chief Tony Eury Jr., was relegated to a 40th-place finish after leading 31 laps early. Eury is moving to Hendrick Motorsports next week to prepare for Junior’s arrival at the end of the season.
“We had a good car, we led some, we got the people on their feet. I thought we could win it,” Earnhardt said. “I’m sad for Martin more than anything. We have a gremlin in there.”
That “gremlin” had title contenders Bowyer and Kevin Harvick on edge, worrying about the durability of their own motors. Both made it to the finish, but neither had anything to challenge the Hendrick duo.