Hendrick dominance, Junior's status stay stories

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- The Nextel Cup season is starting to look like the NBA.

The San Antonio Spurs (Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and occasionally Kyle Busch) hang around the lead for three quarters while the Phoenix Suns (Denny Hamlin or Tony Stewart) look poised for victory.

Then the Spurs (Gordon this week) take control in the fourth quarter to win like they seemingly always do.

Meanwhile, the Washington Wizards (everybody else in the field) scratch their heads and wonder what it's going to take to break up these teams.

And LeBron James (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) continues to sell more souvenirs than anybody in the league.

The two biggest stories of the year continued to be the big story on Sunday at Darlington Raceway.

Gordon held off lap leader Hamlin with steam literally spewing out from under his hood to win for the third time in the past four weeks and give Hendrick Motorsports its eighth win in the past nine races, including all five Car of Tomorrow events.

Teammate Johnson finished third, the seventh time HMS has had two cars in the top three.

And Earnhardt, NASCAR's most popular driver, finished eighth to cap a week in which he announced he would leave the company his father built to start the biggest free agent frenzy the sport has seen.

Nobody was more upset than Hamlin, who finished second or third for the fifth time in 11 races. First there was the bad pit stop that dropped him from second to 16th with 58 laps remaining.

Then there was NASCAR's decision not to call caution with two laps to go for what Hamlin considered obvious debris.

"There was somebody's entire fender or underbody on the racetrack," said Hamlin, who led a career-high 179 laps. "If a car was two-wide or three-wide down the backstretch, they were going to run over it.

"I knew a caution was going to come out. I saw that and I literally pumped my fist. And of course, if the caution comes out, it's game over. But no caution. Hendrick gets another break."

Hamlin paused, then added, "I don't mean to open up a can of worms on that. Forget I said that."

Too late. Can of worms opened.

Even Gordon agreed he got a break, although he hedged it by saying NASCAR shouldn't have called caution with 16 laps remaining after David Stremme blew an engine.

"Absolutely should have been a caution at the end," Gordon said after collecting career win No. 78. "But there shouldn't have been one before that … when we were really checked out and those guys didn't have a chance of catching us.

"I was pretty upset they threw that caution. But I will say there at the end, debris, oil, everything you can imagine was on that racetrack. That comes back to inconsistency."

NASCAR officials said spotters reported debris on the track, adding it was outside the racing groove and there was no reason to call a caution.

"It can work with you and against you," said Gordon, who used a few expletives to describe the caution that worked against him. "Today it worked for us."

Little has gone wrong for Gordon this season. He has finished outside the top 10 only once -- 12th at Atlanta -- and he's finished fourth or better seven straight weeks.

He won Sunday despite leading only 22 laps.

The only thing that didn't go right was his mother didn't hang around after the event was postponed because of rain on Saturday to celebrate in Victory Lane on Mother's Day.

"Hey, they bailed on me," said Gordon, referring to his mother and sister. "I can't wait to call them and chew them out."

But Gordon did get to celebrate with his wife Ingrid, who made her last road trip with the couple's first child due in about six weeks.

"She had a little tear in her eye," Gordon said. "Definitely the emotions and hormones are flying right now."

Gordon's hormones were a little off heading into the race. He didn't sleep well the night before and admittedly was in a bad mood most of the day.

When his car started overheating over the final 100 laps he was resigned to getting the best finish possible.

He thought Johnson, who led 44 laps, was the car to beat after taking the lead from Hamlin with 66 laps remaining.

But Johnson opted to pit with about 24 laps remaining, only six laps after the previous stop. Gordon stayed out and took the lead while his teammate fell to seventh.

"I was shocked Jimmie was going to come in," said Gordon, who won for the seventh time at arguably NASCAR's toughest track. "I didn't think that was enough laps to come in."

Staying out also helped Gordon keep his water and oil temperature down "because when we stopped on pit road the overheating got worse."

Whether Gordon's engine would blow was about the only drama the rest of the way.

"I heard the 25 [HMS's Casey Mears] blew up," said Ryan Newman, who finished fourth. "I was hoping the 24 [Gordon] would be next, but those guys did a great job."

Newman actually played a role in Gordon's victory. Running second, he tied Johnson and Hamlin up long enough that Gordon was able to build an insurmountable lead after the final caution.

"Newman knows how to make his car very, very, very wide," Gordon said. "I think the only friend he made out there was me."

The Hendrick domination took for a moment the focus off of Earnhardt, who could be driving an HMS car next season if that's where he chooses to go.

He was as happy with finishing eighth as Hamlin was disappointed with finishing second to an HMS driver another week.

"It's the same story," Hamlin said. "We're at a different track and I'm here talking about the exact same thing."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.