J. Gordon again sizzles at California Speedway

In 100-plus-degree heat, he gains 3rd win on track, 2nd straight Cup victory

Auto Racing

May 03, 2004|By Shav Glick | Shav Glick,LOS ANGELES TIMES

FONTANA, Calif. - The best thing about yesterday's NASCAR race, for spectators at least, was not the record 23 lead changes among 15 of the 43 drivers, and not even watching Jeff Gordon hold off the charging Bobby Labonte in the late stages to win his third race in eight starts at California Speedway.

It was the six yellow caution flags that gave them a chance to duck out of the searing 100-plus-degree sun for a few moments under the grandstands in the shade and pick up a cool drink. Sales for programs were brisk, too, as they made makeshift fans.

By the time Gordon took the checkered flag, 3 hours, 38 minutes, 34 seconds after the race started, the stands of sun-burned patrons were nowhere near full. The track care center and first aid station attended to nearly 1,000 people, nearly all of whom were stricken by the heat, according to a track official.

Goodyear tire engineers reported temperatures as high as 141 degrees on the track.

The race itself, the Auto Club 500, round 10 in the Nextel Cup's 36-race season, developed into a fuel-mileage contest that ended when Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet barely made it to the last of 250 laps as his three closest challengers, Labonte in another Chevrolet and Dodge teammates Jeremy Mayfield and rookie Kasey Kahne, ran out of fuel.

"I didn't have enough gas left to do a burnout or a doughnut to celebrate," said Gordon, whose car was pushed to Victory Lane by crew chief Robbie Loomis and a celebrating bunch of crewmen.

Jimmie Johnson, Gordon's teammate, and Dodge driver Ryan Newman were the beneficiaries of the empty tanks as they moved from fifth and sixth to second and third on the last lap.

Farther back, veterans Mark Martin and Joe Nemechek also ran out of gas, costing them top-10 finishes.

The win, the 66th in Gordon's career and his second in as many weeks, moved him within 27 points of Dale Earnhardt Jr. in quest of a fifth Cup championship. Johnson's second-place finish kept him second, 25 back of Earnhardt, who finished 19th, a lap back of the winner.

It was Gordon's third California Speedway win. No one else has won more than one. He won the inaugural in 1997 and again in 1999.

"I felt like we had a car that was capable of winning right from the green flag when we went from 16th to third," Gordon said. "On those last two or three runs, when we were running with Kasey [Kahne], we knew how strong he was, so when he passed me and then I ran him down, it made me feel awfully good about my car. The horsepower we were getting, on a hot day like this, was just awesome."

Gordon led 81 laps, more than any other driver, although Kahne, the pole-sitter, led 77 in trying to score his first win for car owner Ray Evernham, who was Gordon's crew chief for three of his four championships.

"Racing is a funny game," Gordon said. "Sometimes you win when you don't have the fastest car, like last week at Talladega, and today we didn't have the best car, although we had the best when it counted. We weren't really one of the top five after practice. But these guys just dialed it in.

"At the end, we were the best, well maybe not quite the best the way Bobby Labonte was running at the end, but awfully good. California is a difficult track to drive and the last three or four times here we've stunk. I like the way the track has matured, but that hasn't made it any easier. It's a handful."

Labonte, who started 27th, was not a factor in the race for the first 200 miles, never getting higher than ninth, but over the last 45 miles he was the fastest, cutting into Gordon's margin each time around the 2-mile D-shaped oval. What was left of the crowd was on its feet as the drama unfolded.

From a deficit of nearly five seconds, the margin was less than a second when Labonte's engine began to sputter. He tried weaving his car back and forth to get what little gas was left into the fuel tank pickup. It didn't work.

"We didn't make an adjustment," Labonte said of his final pit stop, on Lap 199, the same as Gordon. "We just put tires on and took off. Nobody told me that we were going to be close [on fuel], so I didn't ask. I think what got us there was when we made up a lot of time on Jeff. We got within less than a second of him and then ran out of gas going into Turn 1."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Results

Nextel Cup

Auto Club 500

At Fontana, Calif. Lap Length: 2 miles (Start position in parentheses) 1. (16) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 250, $318,628.

2. (19) J. Johnson, Chev., 250, $194,675.

3. (7) Ryan Newman, Dodge, 250, $191,267.

4. (25) Matt Kenseth, Ford, 250, $172,578.

5. (27) B. Labonte, Chev., 250, $150,233.

6. (5) Brendan Gaughan, Dodge, 250, $106,125.

7. (29) Terry Labonte, Chevrolet, 250, $119,625.

8. (13) Casey Mears, Dodge, 250, $108,375.

9. (24) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 250, $123,203.

10. (15) Ward Burton, Chevrolet, 250, $88,350.

11. (26) Mark Martin, Ford, 250, $90,450.

12. (23) R. Gordon, Chev., 250, $112,437.

13. (1) Kasey Kahne, Dodge, 250, $127,250.

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