Staying on track gives Gordon a victory

Posted: June 11, 2007

LONG POND, Pa. - First, the Pocono 500 turned into the Cocktail Hour 500. Then, it developed into a race against rain.

Following a 3-hour rain delay yesterday, some daring strategy enabled Jeff Gordon to win the rain-shortened NASCAR Nextel Cup race at Pocono Raceway.

The win was Gordon's fourth of the season, tying him with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, as the scheduled 200-lap race, which didn't begin until 5 p.m., was red-flagged after 106 laps.

On the third and final delay, at 6:55 p.m., the rain was confined to Turn 1 of the 2.5-mile trioval. Workers began drying the track, but NASCAR decided about 35 minutes later that there wasn't enough time to clear the track and resume racing before it would be too dark to continue.

Gordon's winning strategy occurred on Lap 65 when polesitter Ryan Newman pitted under caution. Steve Letarte, Gordon's crew chief, advised him to stay on the track. He took the lead with another Hendrick teammate Casey Mears in second.

After Gordon and Mears pitted on Lap 82, Newman regained the lead. When the left front tire on Johnson's Chevrolet blew on Lap 89, Newman made another pit stop.

By Lap 94, with the rain approaching, Carl Edwards, who had not pitted, led for three laps. When he pitted, Gordon moved to the front on Lap 98.

The race was official at the halfway mark (Lap 100). With Gordon battling brake problems on his No. 24 Chevy, Newman tried to pass him between Turns 1 and 2 on Lap 104. Newman's Dodge was within a half-length of Gordon when the rain began falling again and the caution flag was waved.

"Steve made a gutsy, great call," Gordon said, "based on looking at the radar. It was risky [but] it worked out pretty awesome. He's the one that won this race, not me."

Letarte said that even if Gordon had pitted on Lap 65, he would have needed another pit stop before halfway.

Gordon, the Cup series points leader by 242 over Matt Kenseth, whose ninth-place finish moved him ahead of Johnson into second place, couldn't stop smiling after his 79th career win because he knew there were so many unusual elements involved.

"[Winning the race] is bizarre for many reasons," he said. "I didn't know if we were going to get on the track today. Then we were floating around eighth, ninth, 10th. Every time I started to move forward, we were having brake issues.

"I think we knew from the beginning that this was going to be a shorter race. On one side, I feel guilty for even taking this win. On the other I don't, because Steve made a great call."

Following his second consecutive runnerup finish, Newman said there should be no suspicion by Gordon haters that NASCAR's timing with the caution favored Gordon.

"It rained on me the lap before that," Newman said. "When we came back around, it rained even harder. We were 4 feet short. There's no controversy about it."

Martin Truex Jr., the third-place finisher, summed up the successful strategy of Gordon's crew.

"The [No.] 24 snookered all of us," he said.

Addressing how the timing of the last caution helped him, Gordon joked, "I was hoping [the fans] would throw stuff at me, so they'd have to call the race for that reason."

On several winning occasions during his career, including this year, fans rooting for other drivers have pelted his car with bottles.

Gordon said his brake problems caused his car to vibrate and lose grip. The four-time Cup champion vividly recalls his hard crash, caused by faulty brakes, in last year's June race at Pocono.

"[The brakes] were always grabbing," he said. "I just wasn't sure which time I'd go in the corner and push it and it wasn't going to grab. That's a scary feeling."

Denny Hamlin, winner of both Pocono races last year from the pole as a rookie, led the most laps (49). He finished sixth. *

Send e-mail to fleiscb@phillynews.com

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