| ||Associated Press|
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Jeff Gordon remembered the routine. Make
a left turn into Victory Lane. Dole out high-fives to the Rainbow Warriors. Get doused with champagne. Smile when receiving the big check and trophy.
But something was different this time.
There were hardly any boos coming from the grandstands.
Popular once again after his worst losing streak in five years, the three-time Winston Cup champion heard a wave of cheers Sunday when he held off Mike Skinner to win the DieHard 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
"I don't remember that the last time I won here," said Gordon, who was used to hearing jeers when he dominated the sport.
On his way to the postrace news conference, he was surrounded by hundreds of adoring fans. A few even managed to shimmy up the steel girders under the stands, straining precariously to get a look.
"Everybody likes a winner," Gordon said. "But no one likes someone who wins too much. I understand that. When the boos were coming, I would sit back and say, 'I don't blame them.' When I was winning 13 races in a season, 10 races in a season, that was unheard of."
But things changed shortly after longtime crew chief Ray Evernham left the Rainbow Warriors. Gordon won the Oct. 11 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, then fell into his worst slump in five years.
He went 13 races without a victory, matching the winless streak that covered the final 12 races of 1994 and the first event in '95.
Gordon failed to finish higher than 10th over the final five races last year and the futility carried over to this season. He was 12th in the point standings coming to Talladega and qualified poorly, starting 36th in the 43-car field.
But Gordon quickly pushed to the front and grabbed the lead for the first time with a brilliant move on lap 103 of the 188-lap event.
"I'm a little shocked," said Gordon, who came from further back in the field than any previous winner at Talladega. "We were not very fast when we tested here and not very fast when we qualified. But, in the draft, the car was just spectacular."
Gordon grabbed the lead from Mark Martin with five laps to go, becoming the ninth different winner in as many NASCAR Winston Cup races this year when he edged Skinner by about two car lengths.
"It was emotional for us," Gordon said after his 50th career victory. "I know it hadn't been forever, but it had been a while."
On lap 183, Gordon dived to the inside coming out of Turn 4, nipping at the infield grass to get past Martin. Skinner fell into line behind Gordon and tried bravely to pull out his first Cup victory.
But Gordon would not be denied. He blocked Skinner time and time
again on the backstretch, briefly fishtailing at one point before
regaining control and maintaining the lead as the two cars went
Dale Earnhardt, who has won a record nine Cup races at
Talladega, tried to get into the mix on the final trip around the
2.66-mile track. But The Intimidator drifted high in turn four
while Gordon pulled away from Skinner for a 0.189-second victory.
He won with an average speed of 161.157 mph as Chevrolet
captured the top four places. Teammates Skinner and Earnhardt
finished second and third, followed by Kenny Irwin. Jimmy Spencer,
in a Ford Taurus, was fifth.
"The only way I was going to beat him was if I hit him and spun
him out and took a chance on hurting somebody," said Skinner, who
had his best career finish. "I don't want to win my first race
because I knocked somebody out of the race who raced me clean all
Gordon, who won $159,755 for the victory, was one of 10 drivers
involved in 27 lead changes on a track where carburetor restrictor
plates promote close racing by robbing the cars of horsepower.
The three- and four-wide racing kept the massive crowd of
185,000 on its feet most of the day, adding a short-track flair to
the longest, fastest oval on the circuit.
"As far as pushing and shoving and knocking around, it's more
like Martinsville racing than a superspeedway," Earnhardt said.
"It was a rock 'em, sock 'em day."
Martin, who led 98 laps and seemed much of the day to have the
strongest car on the track, slipped back to sixth in a Ford. But he
grabbed the lead in the season standings, holding a 24-point lead
over Bobby Labonte.
Labonte was taken out in the only major crash of the day, a
16-car, chain-reaction wreck on lap 138. No one was seriously
injured, but Labonte wound up 21st and one lap down in his battered
Another frightening incident occurred on lap 175, when rookie
Dave Blaney lost control and slid backward down pit road while crew
members scrambled to get out of the way.
Dale Jarrett's team owner, Robert Yates, hurt a leg when he
jumped off the wall. But he pulled himself up after a few minutes,
put back on his headset and finished the race. Joe Snyder, a
crewman for Ed Berrier, was taken away in an ambulance complaining
of back pain, but he was treated and released from the infield care
Furr: Gordon exorcises past with win at Talladega