CONCORD – Jeff Gordon took a big step toward a fifth Nextel Cup championship Saturday night with a dramatic victory in the Bank of America 500 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
Gordon seemed to be well on his way to his 81st career victory, his second in a row and his fifth win at this 1.5-mile track until some late-race dramatics produced a heart-pounding finish.Gordon was leading Kyle Busch by nearly four seconds before Johnny Sauter spun out in Turn 4 on Lap 322 to bring out the yellow.
NASCAR stopped the field behind the pace car while fluid flowing from Jeff Green’s Chevrolet was cleaned up around the track. The clean-up, inexplicably, continued even after the cars rolled off again, and by the time the green came only five laps remained.
Gordon’s car was sputtering, low on fuel, as he tried to get going again. The No. 24 Chevrolet faltered heading toward Turn 1, but instead of Busch going by it was pole-winner Ryan Newman who shot to the outside and rocketed into the lead.
But on Lap 322, Newman’s Dodge snapped around coming off Turn 2 and he hit the wall. That put Gordon back into the lead, but not yet out of the woods.
Newman’s wreck set up a green-white-checkered finish, and this time Gordon’s car faltered again on the restart. Clint Bowyer was behind him this time, but instead of going low and passing the leader Bowyer wound up running into Gordon’s rear bumper.
“That really got me going again,” Gordon said. He pulled away by a couple of car lengths.
“I messed up,” Bowyer said. “I knew the start was going to be my time.”
After that, Gordon’s fuel lasted – long enough even for him to do a burnout – and so did his luck.
“Somebody’s got a horseshoe up his butt, but keep it up there,” Gordon said on the team’s radio after he crossed the finish line.
“I can’t tell you how many times we tried to give this one away,” Gordon said in Victory Lane. “This is what we’ve been looking for, getting a win at Charlotte.”
It had been a while.
This was Gordon’s first Charlotte win since October 1999 and, perhaps more immediately relevant, the first time in the past six races here that his No. 24 had even been running at the checkered flag.
He came into the night nine points ahead of teammate Jimmie Johnson in the Chase for the Nextel Cup standings, but Gordon’s win and a near disaster for Johnson changed that.Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet appeared to be the car to beat early, but he spun off Turn 2 on Lap 231 and clipped the outside wall. Johnson dropped to 30th on the ensuing restart after his crew made quick repairs, then rallied to finish 14th.
That’s still Johnson’s worst Charlotte finish since his first Nextel Cup race in the fall of 2001 and it leaves the defending series champion, 68 points behind Gordon halfway through the Chase.
Bowyer, the second-year driver who just refuses to go away in this championship battle, is now 78 points behind after holding on to finish second. Kyle Busch was third, Jeff Burton fourth and Carl Edwards fifth.
“I think Jeff has been the guy to beat all year long,” Bowyer said of Gordon. “But for me and my team, we just have to pick it up a little. They (Gordon’s team) are going to have to stub their toe a little bit for us to catch them.”
Tony Stewart stubbed his toe a little Saturday night, running into first Paul Menard and then Kasey Kahne on pit road during a stop just past the halfway mark. He battled back from that to finish seventh, but he dropped from 154 points back to 198 points behind.
Johnson flexed his muscle early, leading 95 of the first 211 laps. But differing pit strategies through a series of cautions shuffled things around and left Bowyer first and Gordon fourth on the restart after Johnson’s spin.
It took Gordon until Lap 273 to take the lead, and he had to pass Busch on Lap 285 to get back in front after Busch had won the race off pit road following the final pit stops by just a nose. Gordon’s lead grew to more than five seconds at one point, but Busch had cut that slightly before the red flag closed things up and gave Busch a last chance to take a win from his teammate.
But Busch managed to keep from wrecking Gordon on the next-to-last restart, which is the only reason Gordon was still around to inherit the lead again when Newman went sliding so surprisingly into the wall just when it seemed he might break his 75-race winless streak and get his first career points win at Charlotte.