J. Gordon uses draft

fans prefer beer cans

His 77th win breaks tie with Earnhardt, then he gets shelled

Auto racing

April 30, 2007|By Ed Hinton | Ed Hinton,ORLANDO SENTINEL

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- They went to jail for Dale here yesterday.

Jeff Gordon's 77th career victory, surpassing the lifetime total of the late Dale Earnhardt on the iconic figure's birthday, was greeted with a massive bombardment of full beer cans from the grandstands.

The reception was so nasty after Gordon won the Aaron's 499 that he couldn't even decide whether to feel elated or guilty over breaking a tie with Earnhardt for sixth on the NASCAR Nextel Cup all-time winners list at the track where Earnhardt is still worshiped most.

"I certainly didn't want to start a riot today," Gordon said, "and hopefully nobody got injured with what happened. But I wanted to break the record, and it's pretty awesome to do it here today. So I keep going back and forth: `It's cool,' then, `Oh, man, why did it have to happen at Talladega?'"

Fewer than 10 missile hurlers were detained and no injuries were reported, according to Talladega Superspeedway officials who'd repeatedly warned fans before the race that they would be arrested for such a display. It was simply too hard to spot and catch all the perpetrators in a crowd estimated at more than 180,000.

As the field came to the checkered flag under caution, the exploding beer cans around the line of cars made them appear like a line of ships in a convoy with bombs exploding all around them and sometimes hitting them.

At that point the barrage was so wild that cars behind Gordon's caught much of the shelling.

Said his teammate, Jimmie Johnson, who finished second: "I could see in the mirror that there were a lot more behind us. I'm not sure if they were upset because the race finished under caution, or if it was at Jeff."

But Gordon appeared almost to be taunting the crowd as he completed his victory lap. He drove up alongside the frontstretch fence and began doing a celebratory burnout. The storm then intensified, and there was no doubt about its focus. NASCAR officials then told him to go immediately to Victory Lane, out of range of the missiles.

Last week at Phoenix, Gordon had been the object of a lighter shelling with full cans after he won to tie Earnhardt at 76 wins. There, even when he carried a black No. 3 flag on his victory lap meaning to honor Earnhardt, fanatic Earnhardt worshipers took it as a sign of disrespect.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished fifth yesterday, had been outspoken in support of Gordon all week, and appealed to fans not to repeat the display of a week ago here. If they must throw something, Earnhardt Jr. suggested, throw rolls of toilet paper.

"I thought Junior had more power than that," Gordon said in Victory Lane. "I thought they were going to throw toilet paper because that's what he asked them to throw. I saw maybe one roll."

The win put Gordon in a commanding 203-point lead over Jeff Burton in the Nextel Cup standings, leaving fans with the extra-inflammatory feeling that he could be on his way to a fifth season championship.

Gordon dominated most of the race, leading the most laps, 71, of the 192 that included four laps of overtime. Gordon got shuffled back in the draft late in the race, but stormed back using the draft to take the lead on Lap 185 and held it at the start of the green-white-checkered finish.

But only half a lap into the overtime sprint, a wreck on the backstretch brought out the final caution, freezing the field and leaving Gordon the winner - and the target.

Ed Hinton writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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