Gordon goes all-in with Kansas win

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Welcome to the bizarro world of night racing at Kansas Speedway.

The track's first Cup race under the lights produced some peculiar moments. The start was delayed by 35 minutes due to passing thunderstorms and reports of tornadoes in the area. Just shy of the halfway mark, the bank of lights lining the outside of the backstretch went dark.

With 116 laps to go, Jamie McMurray inexplicably crunched the Turn 3 wall in his No. 1 McDonald's Chevrolet and had to be rescued from the burning wreckage by crew members on pit road.

With 80 to go, AJ Allmendinger got loose on the frontstretch and triggered a nasty six-car wreck that ended with David Gilliland and Justin Allgaier wobbling away from mangled heaps of metal.

Oh, and Danica Patrick made a bold double pass of Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to run third deep into the race. She finished a career-best seventh.

But the topper Saturday night?

It had to be Jeff Gordon celebrating his 89th career victory and his first of 2014. The four-time Sprint Cup champion said recently he would gladly trade his points lead for a win. After prevailing in the 5-hour Energy 400, he won't have to.

Gordon became the ninth different winner in 11 races this season, all but locking down a Chase spot under NASCAR's new playoff-clinching format that rewards winning. It was Gordon's third trip to Victory Lane at Kansas -- he won the first two Cup races here, in 2001 and '02.

"This is so sweet," a jubilant Gordon told a Fox reporter afterward. "What a huge weight lifted off this team's shoulders."

It wasn't easy. Gordon inherited the lead with eight laps to go when Brad Keselowski pitted for fuel, then he had to hold off a determined Kevin Harvick on a wild final lap to take the checkers.

"He was strong and he was coming ..." Gordon said of Harvick. "I'm not sure I could have held him off much longer."

Kasey Kahne finished third, followed by Joey Logano and Earnhardt.

Harvick clearly had the car to beat early and late. The pole-sitter had a third of the field lapped before pitting for fuel on Lap 42. Inevitably, an ill-timed pit stop that mired him in the middle of the pack for much of the race and a mental mistake on pit road down the stretch cost Harvick the chance to win his third Cup race of 2014.

"The car was really fast," said Harvick, who led a race-high 119 laps. "We just had to overcome a lot tonight. Getting caught on pit road both times under green-flag pit stops and then we ran out of gas coming to pit road there. I was looking at the fuel-pressure gauge instead of the tach[ometer] and lost a bunch of time down pit road and off of pit road and wound up getting stuck behind the 24 ...

"I just ran out of laps at the end. ... I made too many mistakes at the end to get by him."

Gordon will take it. He's been consistent all season, entering the race with four top-5s in 10 starts (he had eight all of last season).

How special was this victory? Gordon was downright giddy when he met with reporters afterward.

"It's very cool," he said. "This has always been one of my favorite tracks, from that first race [in 2001]. I don't know what it is about this race team and this racetrack for inaugural events, but tonight's win was very, very special. And it didn't come easy. ...

"Nothing makes me more proud than when it's all on the line and you get the lead and you have to hold off someone like Harvick and you get it done. It may have been by inches, but we got it done. That's what builds momentum. That's what builds a great race team and turns you not only into a winning team but hopefully into a championship team."

Gordon's quest for a fifth championship improved greatly Saturday night. With a victory in his pocket -- and a Chase berth all but secure -- he and the 24 crew are in position to be more aggressive, an approach Hendrick Motorsports teammate Earnhardt adopted following his season-opening win at Daytona.

"Getting that first win is so crucial," Gordon said. "It's not a guarantee [for the Chase], but it's almost a guarantee. Once you get that first win, it can only lead you to the ability to take risks to get the next win."