Jeff Gordon (search) proved again he is NASCAR's new king of restrictor-plate racing. Gordon fought off challenger after challenger Sunday and had to go to overtime to win the Aaron's 499 Nextel Cup (search) race at Talladega Superspeedway.
It was Gordon's fourth victory in the last five races at Talladega (search) and Daytona, the only tracks at which NASCAR requires the horsepower-sapping plates to slow the cars.
The four-time Cup champion led a dominating 139 of the 194 laps on the 2.66-mile oval. He finally held off Tony Stewart and Michael Waltrip at the end of a two-lap shootout, which was set up by a six-car crash with one lap remaining in regulation that ended the chances of fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. (search)
By staying up front most of the day, Gordon was able to avoid a wild 25-car crash that took out several top contenders, as well as the crash on lap 187 that involved Earnhardt, series points leader Jimmie Johnson and pole-winner Kevin Harvick.
"I definitely did not want to see that last caution," Gordon said. "They were shuffling and dicing back there before that last caution and I was in a better position before that [last] restart."
But Gordon got a good start when the green flag waved for the start of lap 193 and he stayed out front as the contenders fought it out behind him. Stewart, with Waltrip giving him a hard push, managed to grab the second spot, but finished 0.192-seconds — about two car-lengths — behind the winner's No. 24 Chevrolet. It is the 13th consecutive victory for Chevy at the Alabama track.
"Michael pushed me all the way down the backstretch on the white flag lap and I still couldn't catch the 24," said Stewart, who finished second at Talladega for the fourth time. "Finishing in the top two isn't bad at this place."
Gordon, who defended his victory here last year and added this win to his triumph in February in the Daytona 500, has grabbed the mantle of near invincibility on plate tracks once held by the late Dale Earnhardt and inherited by Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip, who drives for Dale Earnhardt, Inc.
Junior and Waltrip have won nine of the last 17 plate races and came from near the back of the 43-car field to get into contention on Sunday. But this one was all Gordon as he raced to his third victory in nine races this season and his 72nd career win.
It looked as if his strong performance might not be rewarded when Waltrip raced into the lead on lap 183, shuffling Gordon back to fourth. But Gordon was not to be denied, charging back to second place on the next lap and retaking the lead on lap 185.
"It's all about getting a push out there," Gordon said. "They could pass me if I gave them too much room but, if I got the slightest push from behind, watch out. My car was awesome."
Jeremy Mayfield finished fourth, followed by Jamie McMurray, Elliott Sadler and defending series champion Kurt Busch. Earnhardt, who has five Talladega victories, including one last fall, was able to continue after the last crash and finished 15th.
The way the cars race most of the day at Talladega — in huge packs two- and three-wide — at least one huge multicar crash — "The Big One" — is nearly inevitable. Sunday's race saw one of the biggest.
Earnhardt, battling toward the rear of the top 10, nudged the rear of Mike Wallace's car on lap 133 as the cars headed toward turn one. Wallace then came together with Jimmie Johnson and slid sideways, setting off a melee that eventually involved more than half the 43-car field.
So many cars ended up packed together in the muddy infield grass between turns one and two that it looked like an auto junkyard. NASCAR stopped the race for 43 minutes, 21 seconds to remove the cars, clean up the debris and make repairs to the energy-absorbing SAFER Barrier.
Among the cars damaged, the worst were those of Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, Joe Nemechek, Mike Bliss, Bobby Hamilton Jr., Scott Wimmer, Carl Edwards, Mike Skinner, Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch.
Busch had a good view of the crash, noting, "The 48 [Johnson] drifted a little high down the front straightaway, squeezed the 4 [Mike Wallace] a little bit and the 8 [Earnhardt] had nowhere to go."
"This kind of racing just isn't any fun at all," Rusty Wallace said. "It seemed like everybody was minding their own business. It was just regular restrictor plate racing, pretty boring out there.
"I still don't know what happened. Obviously, somebody bumped someone else too hard. Sooner or later you're going to have this on this type of track."