October 14, 2007
CONCORD, N.C. -- The Nextel Cup series is starting to resemble an NBA game.
Only the last five minutes seem to matter these days.
A week ago in Talladega, the drivers themselves called the day boring as they rode around in a single-file parade just making laps most of the race -- until the end, when there was a mad scramble to the checkered flag before Jeff Gordon passed Jimmie Johnson only a few feet from the start-finish line for the victory.
Saturday night's race at Lowe's Motor Speedway was another ho-hum affair for much of the 500-mile grind. There were a few highlights, or lowlights if you were a Chase for the Nextel Cup contender other than Gordon, Johnson or Clint Bowyer, but overall things were mostly on the mundane side.
But then came the last 10 laps, when all hell broke lose.
There was enough drama in the final 20 miles to fill three episodes of CSI. And in the end, it was Gordon once again standing in Victory Lane.
It wasn't an easy route, by any means, for the four-time champion to finally break an eight-year drought at the North Carolina track. He had to survive two late-race restarts, a bonzai pass for the lead by Ryan Newman -- who handed the lead back to Gordon when he crashed one lap later -- a potential dustup with soon-to-be-former teammate Kyle Busch and for good measure, a fuel pickup problem.
"Yeah, we pretty much scripted that one three or four days ago," Gordon said with a laugh.
While he was dodging many of the elements that were unfolding around him, some did question whether the potential fuel problem was being blown out of proportion as a means of psychological warfare.
Gordon complained to crew chief Steve Letarte several times before the final green-white-checkered restart that his Chevrolet was misfiring, and there were doubts he'd have enough gas to make it through the overtime finish.
But Gordon not only ran away to the win once the race went back to green, he even had enough left in the tank for a couple of celebratory burnouts.
"If I was over-dramatizing it, then I wouldn't have lost the lead," Gordon said of falling behind Newman on the next-to-last restart. "I mean, what happened was when that happened; I wanted to be more to the safe side."
"It wasn't that we are running out of gas. When I say I was running out of gas, we were running out of gas because there wasn't enough with the banking running around slow to hold it up in the box inside the tank to where I was trying to scuff the tires, spin the tires. It was just sucking it right out of it or it was draining out into the rest of the tank. So when I ran around there flat, it was to keep as much fuel into the right side of the gas tank as I could. That way on the restart, I have plenty of power and didn't suck it out."
While Gordon had enough power to win again and increase his lead in the Chase standings, that wasn't true for just about all of the other championship contenders including his teammate Jimmie Johnson.
The defending series champion looked to be the class of the field and on his way to a sixth career Cup win at LMS in the early going. But he uncharacteristically spun out on the backstretch around the midway point and had to go into overdrive just to finish 14th.
"We didn't have a clean night tonight," said Johnson, who fell 68 points behind Gordon. "I made a mistake. We had mistakes through the night that kept hurting us on track position. Fortunately, we had a good car, and I could get back through there."
"So we're leaving here disappointed. But we had a good performance, so there is some light at the end of the tunnel. But it's just a bummer of a night."
Johnson's wasn't close to the bummer Tony Stewart endured. After starting 29th, Stewart made a charge toward the front of the field in hopes of a good finish to gain some ground in the standings.
But those dreams ended not on the track but on pit road, when he made contact with not one but two cars during an early pit stop.
Stewart was clipped first by Paul Menard as he pulled into his pit stall for service and then ran into Kasey Kahne as he was exiting during the same stop. The damage to the No. 20 Chevrolet hindered Stewart the rest of the night; he rallied hard just to finish seventh but fell 198 points out of the Chase lead.
"Obviously, you've got to look at what happened and how we finished as a good day," said crew chief Greg Zipadelli, "but I'm probably more frustrated with the fact that we never should've been in that position. We shouldn't make mistakes like that. Things happen so quick and emotions are going and everybody's hollerin' on the radio that it's a shame it put us in that position."
With the Chase halfway home, it's Gordon in the best position of all sitting on top of the championship standings. The next chapter of the title story will unfold next Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.
And based on the last couple of races, don't miss the last five minutes.
Driver Points Deficit
1. Jeff Gordon 5,880 ---
2. Jimmie Johnson 5,812 -68
3. Clint Bowyer 5,802 -78
4. Tony Stewart 5,682 -198
5. Carl Edwards 5,640 -240