Formula One
 Tuesday, April 18
Gordon ends drought with Talladega triumph
 Associated Press


TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Jeff Gordon, who had not won a NASCAR Winston Cup race since October, finally drove back to Victory Lane on Sunday.

Gordon grabbed the lead with five laps to go and held off Mike Skinner in another thrilling finish at Talladega Superspeedway, winning the DieHard 500 by about two car lengths. He was the ninth different winner in as many races this year.

  • He made all the right moves in the high-speed chess match that always plays out over the final laps at Talladega Superspeedway. Sure he led a few laps toward the middle of the race, but Gordon's Monte Carlo was at its best when it had someone pushing it from behind. So, with 20 laps to go, Gordon started his move through the lead pack with Kenny Irwin on his bumper. And after making a winning move on the bottom of the race track around Mark Martin that was reminiscent of his daring '98 Daytona dash around Rusty Wallace, Gordon drove in his rearview mirror the final six laps, anticipating every move Mike Skinner made on the way to the finish line.
  • The top four finishers Sunday all drove Monte Carlos -- a switch from the last restrictor-plate race at Daytona that saw a top-five of Fords at the end. If you are a Chevy fan you say NASCAR's rules are working. Ford fans will say they went to far. Race fans will just sit back and enjoy the racing.
  • "The Big One" cost Bobby Labonte his points lead, as he was one of 16 cars involved in the big wreck and limped home 21st and Mark Martin overtook him in the standings with a sixth-place finish. Jeff Gordon jumped five spots into seventh place with his victory.
    1. Mark Martin, 1,370
    2. Bobby Labonte, 1,346
    3. Ward Burton, 1,293
    4. Dale Earnhardt, 1,272
    5. Jeff Burton, 1,236
  • If having a chance to win is part of the criteria the nod goes to Rusty Wallace, who had a car good enough to give him his first Talladega win before the engine gave out on lap 116. But don't forget about Dale Earnhardt Jr., who may have been strong as well -- although we'll never know. Starting sixth, Little E had to slam on the brakes when the race went green in order to avoid slamming into his father, who slowed in front of him when Bill Elliott didn't get up to speed on the front row. Junior avoided contact, but ruined his right-front assembly.
  • Dale Jarrett, Bobby Hamilton and Steve Park all ran dry at Talladega -- a 2.66-mile track where running out of gas is extremely costly. Jarrett and Hamilton each lost laps while coasting around to the pits. Park, meanwhile, missed his pit stall and couldn't even make it off pit road before running out of fuel. Why push the fuel limit? Maybe the Roush cars of Mark Martin and Jeff Burton had something to do with teams gambling -- both cars were on two-stop schedules instead of three before the late cautions made fuel mileage a non-factor in the race.
  • It wasn't a good day for the rookies, one of whom helped start "The Big One" that sent 16 cars careening into each other on Lap 127. Scott Pruett's contact with Robby Gordon set off the multi-car incident. Pruett escaped what ensued behind him, finishing 20th. Matt Kenseth also avoided trouble in finishing 18th. Dave Blaney (30th) had trouble all day just getting into pit road, ultimately spinning into the restraining wall on his third stop. Mike Bliss ran 24th, while Ed Berrier (28th) got gathered up in the big crash and Stacy Compton finished 33rd.
  • "I know it hadn't been forever, but it had been a while," Gordon said after his 50th career victory. "It takes a toll on you."

    On lap 183, the three-time Winston Cup champion dived to the inside coming out of Turn 4, nipping at the infield grass to get past leader Mark Martin. Skinner fell into line behind Gordon and tried bravely to pull out his first Winston Cup victory.

    But Gordon would not be denied. Mired in a 13-race losing streak, 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 nose-to-tail.

    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 4 while Gordon pulled away from Skinner for a 0.189-second victory.

    "It's been an interesting year for us," Gordon said. "But I never lost faith in this team. I am so proud of them. They have been able to overcome a lot of criticism."

    Two weeks after longtime crew chief Ray Evernham left the Rainbow Warriors, Gordon won the Oct. 11 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He then fell into one of the worst slumps of his career, 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 events last year and the futility carried over to this season. He had his best finish a week earlier, placing fourth at Martinsville, but still was 12th in the point standings coming to Talladega.

    Further compounding his problems, he qualified poorly and started 36th in the 43-car field. But Gordon quickly pushed to the front and grabbed the lead for the first time 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. Sometimes, a car comes to life in the draft. I still didn't think coming from 36th we could do it."

    He won with an average speed of 161.157 mph in a Chevrolet Monte Carlo, which 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.

    "I wasn't going to wreck him to win the race," Skinner said. "I don't want to win my first race because I knocked someone out who raced me clean all day."

    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.

    "It was as bad as Martinsville," Earnhardt said. "I almost got turned two or three times. As far as pushing and shoving and knocking around, it's more like Martinsville racing than a superspeedway. It was a rock 'em, sock 'em day."

    Martin, who led 99 laps and seemed much of the day to have the strongest car on the track, slipped back to sixth in his Ford. But he grabbed the lead in the season standings, holding a 24-point lead over Bobby Labonte.

    Despite the close racing, there were only two brief caution periods until a major crash coming through the tri-oval on lap 138.

    Scott Pruett swerved into Robby Gordon, who took Michael Waltrip into the infield grass to set off a chain-reaction pile-up that damaged 16 cars in all. Dick Trickle suffered the only injury, a swollen right foot that required further observation. The crash also took out Labonte, who wound up 21st and one lap down in his battered Pontiac.

    Jeff Gordon
    Jeff Gordon leads Rusty Wallace and Jeff Burton midway through the DieHard 500.

    Another frightening incident occurred on lap 175, when rookie Dave Blaney lost control and slid backward down pit road while crew members dived out of the way. The car finally came to a stop about halfway down the lane and Dale Jarrett's team owner, Robert Yates, crumpled to the pavement in pain.

    Apparently hurt in the scramble, Yates pulled himself up after a few minutes, put back on his headset and finished the race. But another unidentified person was taken away in an ambulance.

    Bill Elliott, making the 600th start of his career from the outside of the first row, was running near the front with less than 20 laps to go before dropping back to 15th. Pole-sitter Jeremy Mayfield was second with six laps remaining but also was victimized by the drafting, falling all the way to 14th.

    Furr: Gordon exorcises past with win at Talladega

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    Notebook: Junior's day ends before it can begin

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