Gordon dominates at Dover

He leads all but 19 laps in winning MBNA 400

Auto Racing

June 04, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DOVER, Del. - Jeff Gordon was like a man on a carousel, going round and round seemingly without a care.

He led all but 19 laps of the MBNA Platinum 400 yesterday, building a lead that stretched over more than a half-mile before beating Steve Park to the finish line by .828 of a second.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third for his best finish since running second in the Daytona 500 on the day his father, Dale Earnhardt, was killed there. And Ricky Craven, who has been given a second Winston Cup career by owner Cal Wells, finished fourth.

Gordon had finished his interviews and was having a plate of pasta in the back of the press box when he was asked just exactly what it feels like when he is that much in control, and just how comfortable he had been.

He looked at his questioner, and his eyes grew wide.

"It might have looked like the car was on a rail," said Gordon, who established a record for laps led in a 400-mile race at Dover Downs International Speedway. "But my hand is numb because I was so intensely holding the steering wheel and just trying to push the [gas] pedal, which felt like a balloon full of water, just enough.

"And all the time I'm vibrating," he continued, reaching out and suddenly shaking the shoulder of the person next to him, just to demonstrate how he was being shaken around in the car. "All the time your teeth are rattling loose. It's like a roller coaster, but a roller coaster on which the car you're riding in is about to slide off the track."

Still, he said, it was the best race car he has ever had at Dover.

He burst past pole-sitter Dale Jarrett at the drop of the green flag, and, aside from one competitive pass by Rusty Wallace on lap 23, Gordon lost the lead only during the normal rotation of pit stops.

He led 381 laps, the most of anyone in a 400-lap race at Dover and second all-time to only Richard Petty, who led 491 over a 500-lap race here in September 1974.

The victory moved Gordon within 50 points of Jarrett in the Winston Cup points race, and he matched Jarrett as the only drivers who have won more than once this season.

"I thought we were going to have something for Jeff late in the race," Park said. "I was catching him at some points, and then he was pulling away. We just couldn't really get to his back bumper like we wanted to.

"He was strong. My car was so good it was like it was driving itself and we still couldn't catch him."

When crews began arriving at the track early yesterday morning, a number of crew chiefs stopped to chat with Gordon's crew chief, Robbie Loomis.

"They all were telling me how good our car was," Loomis said. "I should have talked to them Saturday night instead of Jeff. Jeff was looking for `that certain feeling' during happy hour Saturday evening, and we just couldn't find it. He has that tremendous feel for the race car, and it is hard to find the balance between tight and loose.

"But, I told him, it may not be perfect, but we're running good."

He was running so good, the crowd of about 140,000 might have registered some surprise at seeing Loomis call for a chassis adjustment during a regular pit stop on lap 266. But Loomis said that no matter how good he or anyone else might have thought the car was running, Gordon knows best.

"If Jeff says he needs something, you better give it to him," Loomis said. "All day in traffic we were tight and then loose when we got out front. After we made the chassis adjustment, Jeff wanted all that stopped."

The race didn't start out looking as if it was going to be a blowout. It seemed as if the green flag wouldn't stay out long enough to allow it. Rain through much of the weekend had washed all the rubber from the concrete track, which meant a somewhat slippery surface.

The first yellow appeared on the second lap, as Jerry Nadeau's car lost contact with the track and spun, taking Bill Elliott, Ken Schrader, Michael Waltrip and Casey Atwood with him. When the green flag came out again on lap 13, it was again replaced by yellow two laps later, when Ward Burton and Jimmy Spencer came sliding out of Turn 2 taking Kurt Busch with them and damaging Mark Martin's car in the process.

"In the early going, I didn't think there was a lot of grip," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I about lost my car, too, on the first lap going in to the first corner. ... It takes about 40 laps to set the grip."

But even with grip, no one was fast enough to catch Gordon, as he averaged 120.361 mph in his Dupont Chevrolet.

"It wasn't easy all day," Gordon said. "I can't remember too many days like this when I've had such a dominating performance."

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