TALLADEGA, Ala. – It’s amazing how expressive the human body can be. With but a single digit, most everyone in the grandstands at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday registered his or her respective reaction to Jeff Gordon’s heart-pounding victory in Sunday’s UAW Ford 500.
For some, it was thumbs down. For others, it was an index finger pointing skyward, indicating not only Gordon’s No. 1 finishing position for the fifth time this year but also the number of laps Gordon led on his way to victory – and, after the win, his nine-point lead over teammate Jimmie Johnson in the Chase for the Nextel Cup standings.
Still others in the stands used another finger as Gordon did a celebratory burnout. But for the most part, this time those anti-Gordon partisans at least were not hurling debris in revulsion toward the outcome.
Perhaps that was because that even Gordon haters had to recognize that, in the car of tomorrow’s debut at this 2.66-mile track, the four-time Nextel Cup champion made both strategy and tactics pay off.
“I have never yawned in a race car in my life,” said Gordon, who spent the first two thirds of the race riding around well behind the lead pack trying to stay out of trouble.
“But I yawned back there. I like to think I have pretty good patience, but that’s beyond patience. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in a race car. There’s just nothing fun about that, but I knew it was the smart thing.”
Anticipating potential mayhem with the new car in its Talladega debut, there was much discussion about employing that approach. Gordon, however, wasn’t sure he could do it.
“I told (car owner) Rick Hendrick this week I couldn’t,” he said. “But I changed that after talking to (crew chief) Steve (Letarte) and then with how we qualified.”
Gordon started 34th, and decided that instead of getting in the middle of a mad dash to the front he’d just wait around as long as he had to, hoping that would allow him to avoid the wrecks everyone thought were inevitable.
There were nine caution flags in the race and there was an 11-car pileup on Lap 145 that started when Bobby Labonte lost control of his Dodge and swooped across the track into Chase driver Kyle Busch.
But the crazy race that some expected never materialized. There was, in fact, far less two- and three-wide racing than has been seen in races here and more single-file lines than anyone would have predicted.
“It wasn’t the kind of race you want to see up until there were 10 laps to go,” Gordon said. “But I knew it was going to be spectacular at the end.”
For Gordon, who - thanks to a well-timed caution - rallied from a pass-through penalty on pit road for running over a hose and pulling an air gun out of his pit stall, that’s where tactics came in.
Tony Stewart took the lead on Lap 153, just before Ken Schrader’s wreck brought out a yellow, and stayed there as the race moved toward its climax. On Lap 173, however, Dave Blaney moved to the low lane and began forming a line there to move up to challenge the leaders.
By Lap 175, Penske Racing teammates Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch were leading the line of challengers and Stewart moved to the low side to try to stunt their charge. Stewart then tried to go back to the high side to halt that line, too, but in doing so he got shuffled out and Newman and Busch surged by.
Four cars wrecked in Turn 1 on the next lap, slowing things and setting up a final eight-lap dash to the checkered flag.
Shortly after the green, Gordon lined up in the low lane with Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears to begin their move to the front. Stewart wasn’t finished, either, but he got stuck in the middle with Newman’s line high and the Johnson-Gordon led line low.
Ast the pack came toward the white flag, Johnson was leading with Gordon behind him. Stewart jumped to the outside. Gordon said he’d been trapped with Newman and Busch to his outside, but when Stewart made it three-wide Gordon could feel the momentum shift inside the draft.
“I got a push from the 22 (Blaney) and I just went with it,” Gordon said. “My spotter said the 20 (Stewart) had a run and I just pulled to the outside. I looked up and the saw the 20 in my mirror.”
Like the plunger sending a pinball on its way in a machine, Gordon got a jolting bump in the rear bumper from Stewart’s on-rushing car. That boost in momentum propelled Gordon forward alongside Johnson and then past him as the leaders roared through the trioval.
“I couldn’t even side-draft him and slow him down,” said Johnson, who held off Blaney for second place. “When you get that close to winning it’s tough. But I haven’t finished a fall race here in a long time.”
A number of the Chase drivers suffered that unfortunate fate Sunday. Jeff Burton blew an engine and finished last. Martin Truex Jr. also lost an engine and was 42nd. Kyle Busch was 36th after the wreck with Labonte, and Matt Kenseth struggled most of the day to finish 26th.
Denny Hamlin did manage fourth, with Kurt Busch seventh, Stewart eighth and Clint Bowyer 11th.
That leaves Bowyer third in the standings, 63 behind Gordon. Stewart is 154 back while Kevin Harvick, who finished 20th Sunday, 202 points back in fifth.