April 29, 2007
TALLADEGA, Ala. (cbssportsline.com/AP) -- As beer cans bounced around his car, Jeff Gordon crossed the finish line Sunday for win No. 77 -- breaking a tie with the late Dale Earnhardt on NASCAR's career victory list.
It was only fitting that it happened at Talladega Superspeedway, where Earnhardt -- who would have been 56 on Sunday -- won 10 times in his Cup career.
But it was anticlimactic and confusing, ending under caution to leave Gordon unsure if he'd actually won and taken over sixth place on the wins list.
"Is it over?" he radioed his crew. "Is it over? Is it official?"
Nobody knew after two separate accidents on the first lap of a three-lap shootout to the finish froze the field and had NASCAR scrambling to make sense of the finish.
Gordon, who was 14th on a restart with 10 laps to go, stormed to the lead a second before NASCAR called a caution after David Reutimann's engine failed and dumped oil all over the track.
It set up a three-lap sprint to the finish, but NASCAR makes only one attempt to complete it. If caution comes out, the race instantly ends. So when Elliott Sadler bumped the back of Greg Biffle to trigger a wreck, the race was effectively over.
But Tony Stewart was knocked into the wall far ahead of that accident and went spinning down the track into the inside wall. He was fuming as the field passed by him under caution, angrily gesturing at Jamie McMurray.
The fans, meanwhile, figured out that Gordon, who tied Earnhardt last week in Phoenix, was the victor and reacted with the shower of beer cans. The debris cut Gordon's celebration short, he didn't do the customary celebratory burnout, instead dodging the cans as he headed directly to Victory Lane.
It was fan reaction Dale Earnhardt Jr. had tried to stave off earlier this week when he asked his fans -- who dominate the Talladega grandstands -- to throw toilet paper instead of beer cans out of safety concerns.
Track officials warned during pre-race activities that fans caught throwing anything onto the track would be arrested, and police officers were stationed in the seats. But it didn't matter as Gordon was declared the winner and his crew members called for security help to get their spotter out of the stands.
"I never caused a riot before for winning -- well, maybe once or twice," Gordon said. "I thought Junior had more power. I thought they'd throw toilet paper, which is what he asked them to throw. I saw maybe one roll."
But Gordon was understanding of the fan reaction.
"There are a lot of fans out there who are Earnhardt fans who don't want to see (the record) broken," he said. "I appreciate the enthusiasm ... the opinions of all the fans out there. What are you going to do?"
Earnhardt Jr., who made a brief run at the victory, finished fifth. But unlike last week, when he visited Gordon in Victory Lane, he stayed away from the celebration.
"I told him this week, I said, 'You win this one and I ain't coming into Victory Lane this time. That caused too much trouble,'" Junior said. "He's a great race car driver. I knew years ago he would eventually pass my old man. I think he has the opportunity to pass a couple more."
The Associated Press News Service