For most of Sunday's Shelby American, Jeff Gordon stunk up the show the way he used to in the late 1990s, when he won three NASCAR Sprint Cup championships in four seasons. But at the end, the story of the race was the same one that's replayed over and over again in recent years: Jimmie Johnson wins.
Results: Shelby American
Gordon led 217 of 267 laps in a beautiful winter afternoon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but his race came down to a questionable decision during the final yellow flag period, which began on Lap 229. Under caution, Gordon pitted his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Impala SS from the lead and came out second behind Clint Bowyer, who didn't pit.
But Gordon took just two tires on his pit stop, while Johnson took four fresh Goodyear Eagles, rejoining the race in fourth place behind Kevin Harvick, who had also taken two tires.
Although Gordon was able to motor by Bowyer on the restart, he was a sitting duck for Johnson and Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, knew it. “You're the first one with four tires on it,” Knaus told Johnson as the drivers waited for the final green flag. “This one has got Jimmie Johnson written all over it.”
Indeed, it did.
Gordon was initially able to hold off Johnson withering assault, but with 16 laps to go, Johnson finally motored on past his teammate. And to add insult to injury, Kevin Harvick passed Gordon with four laps to go, relegating the four-time champion to third place on a day when he had the field covered from start to nearly the finish.
Needless to stay, Gordon was not happy to end the race where he did.
Still, he was gracious in defeat, refusing to blame crew chief Steve Letarte for the decision to take two tires instead of four during the fateful final pit stop. “We just thought more guys were going to take two tires,” said Gordon. “Had more guys taken two tires, I think we could have got them.”
The end result was certainly bittersweet for Gordon. Rarely does a driver ever have a car as dominant as the No. 24 Hendrick Chevy was on this day, and to not win with it is exceptionally frustrating. “On four tires, we had the car,” Gordon said. “That's what makes it so tough. It's really tough to make the right decisions and that 48 bunch (Johnson) is so strong, you don't want to give them four tires and have them be only one or two positions behind you.”
Gordon at least could take some comfort in the fact that his car was spectacular all race long. “We were awesome all day,” he said. “The car was incredible. The pit stops were awesome and Steve called a great race. I know he's beating himself up over that two-tire stop, but, you know, a few more guys take two and I think we would have been all set.”
Results: Shelby American
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEEDtv.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.