TALLADEGA, Ala. – With a last lap pass of his teammate at Talladega Superspeedway, Jeff Gordon became NASCAR's all-time victory leader on restrictor-plate tracks.
His 12th win on Sunday moved him past the late Dale Earnhardt, but Gordon wasn't comfortable claiming the title as the best plate racer in NASCAR history.
"I'm blown away by that, to me (Earnhardt) was the man on restrictor plates," Gordon said. "I watched him do things and I knew they were cheating or something in his carburetor, and then I maybe pulled a couple of those moves throughout the years and I was like `Ahh, now I know what he was doing.'
"I was fortunate that my very first plate race, I was racing Dale in the Daytona 500. Even though I didn't have a chance to win it, I was there in the battle watching. The education started very early for me."
And he used it to win his fifth race of the season and move back on top of the points standings. He leads Johnson by nine points with six races remaining in the Chase for the championship.
Still, it was a bizarre way to do it by Gordon's standards.
Fears over the Car of Tomorrow's plate debut and former Formula One champion Jacques Villeneuve's first Nextel Cup event had the entire field concerned the race would be one big demolition derby.
So Gordon decided to avoid the mess by staying in the back, and found himself yawning in his race car for the first time in his career.
It was difficult for him to do. After all, you don't win four championships running parade laps at the back of the pack.
"It was the hardest race I've ever had to be in. I've never had that type of mind-set before," Gordon said. "It was tough because I don't like just going out there and riding in the back. I want to be out there battling for the lead and leading laps."
Gordon had a horrible qualifying effort — he started 34th — and it put him at the back, where he stayed. He then suffered a late-race setback when he pulled out of his pit with a hose hanging from his car, earning a pass-through penalty that seemed to take him out of contention.
Still, he sat back, resisting the urge to charge to the front.
"It was terrible, I am telling you that was the hardest thing I've ever had to do in a race car," Gordon said. "I like to think that I have pretty good patience, but that's beyond patience.
"There's just nothing fun about that, but I knew it was the smart thing."
A master at working the draft, Gordon eventually marched toward the front and had moved into the top 15 as the race neared its completion. With six laps to go, he was in the middle of a Hendrick Motorsports charge that saw Johnson, Gordon and Casey Mears surge to the front of the pack.
Gordon was stuck behind Johnson, though, and waited until the last lap to make a move toward the front. He finally jumped up high, squeezing in between Johnson and the Penske cars of Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch.
Just as Johnson tried to block him, two-time series champion Tony Stewart slid onto Gordon's bumper and gave him a huge push into the lead. Gordon led just one lap — the last one — to complete a season sweep at Talladega.
"I wasn't happy with getting passed, but that would have been the situation with anybody," said Johnson, who finished second. "To get that close and not win is a letdown. There must have been stuff going on behind me that I couldn't see, but Jeff could in his mirror, and he pulled up and got in front of the 20 (Stewart) and was able to take advantage of that push."
Dave Blaney was third in the best finish this year for a Toyota driver. Title contender Denny Hamlin was fourth and was followed by Ryan Newman, who was leading late in his Dodge, and Mears.
Chase driver Kurt Busch was seventh and Stewart, who was in position to win this race very late, had two strategic moves backfire and was shuffled back to eighth.
This race blew open the Chase for the championship standings, as Gordon and Johnson positioned themselves for a Hendrick battle toward the title. Third-place driver Clint Bowyer finished 11th, but fell 63 points behind the leader.
Stewart dropped 154 points out and everyone else is more than 200 behind.
The entire industry was tense about this race leading up to the green flag because of a combination of the CoT and Villeneuve, who was widely criticized for picking Talladega for his first start.
But Villeneuve, who qualified sixth, dropped to the very back of the pack at the start and stayed out of everyone's way as he quietly finished 21st.
"I'm glad that I didn't create any problems with the drivers," he said. "The finger was being pointed before the race, and that was understandable. The goal was to stay out of trouble and not make enemies."
The garage-wide fear of multiple wrecks because of dangerous driving conditions everyone expected from the CoT didn't materialize until the first big accident with 44 laps to go. And that was more a fluke than a product of Talladega's treacherous racing — Bobby Labonte had some sort of mechanical failure that caused his car to squirt down the track and into Chase driver Kyle Busch.
The contact started an 11-car accident that also collected title contenders Matt Kenseth and Hamlin, although Hamlin suffered only cosmetic damage.
But it destroyed Busch and Kenseth's cars, and marked the second consecutive week that title favorite Busch found himself in the wrong place. He was wrecked last week by Dale Earnhardt Jr., and has gone from 10 points out of the lead two weeks ago to seventh in the standings, 260 points out.
"It's unfortunate for our Chase chances, but we knew that Talladega was going to be our mulligan, we circled it on the calendar that this was going to be the one we were going to wreck in," Busch said. "The team, of course, wants to be optimistic, and they want me to be optimistic, but I'm sorry, it's the realism that sets in that you are so far back that it's going to take a lot to get back in this deal."