Last Fall, Martinsville’s victory lane was filled with tears as the Hendrick Motorsports organization learned of a tragic plane crash that took the lives of 10 of their own. This time around, there were tears—- of joy—- after one of the most remarkable comebacks in recent Nextel Cup history allowed a tribute to those fallen comrades.
Jeff Gordon came back from 3 laps down just 70 laps into Sunday’s Advance Auto Parts 500 to take the checkered flag at Martinsville, his sixth career win at the track. In victory lane, the 24 wasted no time to pay tribute to his fallen friends, with Rick Hendrick standing a few feet away, back at the track for the first time since the tragic accident six months earlier.
“There’s something special about this place,” said an emotional Gordon after climbing out of the car in victory lane. “We lost so many incredible people out of this organization and the racing community. I think it’s only fitting for us to get the victory…I know how much it means to Rick Hendrick and his family and all those other families.”
Still, the win didn’t come easy; this one was easily the hardest-fought short-track win of Gordon’s career. After falling victim to both a tire problem and overheating early in the race, Gordon had to make a green flag pit stop in the early going to fix his problems. Several more stops under caution to fix a what appeared to be a broken right front hub put the 24 car three laps down by the time the fourth yellow ended on lap 77.
At that point, crew chief Robbie Loomis considered putting the DuPont Chevrolet behind the wall for repairs. But whatever was wrong with the car fixed itself once the race went back to green on lap 78, and Gordon was off and running. Jeff got two of his laps back the hard way, passing the leader twice on green-flag restarts following a caution, then used the Lucky Dog pass to get back on the lead lap when Sterling Marlin spun on lap 276 to bring out the yellow.
From that point on, it was not a matter of if but when Gordon would get back to the front. One by one, the other contenders for the victory fell by the wayside. Jeremy Mayfield, who led often early and ran in the Top 5 most of the day, got caught speeding on pit road during a mid-race caution, then had a tire problem that cost him 2 laps under green; he never recovered. Tony Stewart, leading a race-high 247 laps on the day, suffered loose lugnuts that never got fixed on a pit stop, which caused his right front wheel to bounce around and break its hub. He finished 27th. Joining him in the back of the finishing order was teammate Bobby Labonte in 33rd, who ran a steady pace behind Stewart most of the day until his engine let go in the last 100 laps of the race.
That left Kurt Busch, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, and Ricky Rudd at the front, with Gordon moving into the Top 10 as the race entered its final 100 laps. Coming out of the caution for Stewart’s tire problem on lap 437, the five drivers saw themselves in position to race for the win, with only Sterling Marlin, Ryan Newman, and Elliott Sadler ahead of them, drivers that had stayed out under yellow and gambled that old tires would be what was needed to keep them out front.
Busch, Martin, and Gordon began fighting amongst themselves shortly after the restart, and Martin was able to get under Busch to take the lead amongst the cars with new tires. Busch tried to slide in behind Martin on the back straightaway—- and was promptly punted by a hard-charging Gordon entering Turn 3. Busch smacked the wall, wrecking the back of his race car and ending his chances for victory. Busch’s anger with Gordon was evident on the track shortly afterwards, as his damaged car made contact with the 24 when he lapped him under green shortly before the finish. But by the time Busch got out of the car, he had his emotions under control.
“We had a good car today and towards the end it was a shame,” Busch said. “We just ran out of patience again with another Hendrick car.”
Once the green flag waved after Busch’s crash, the race had become Gordon’s to win. He made quick work of Martin, Newman, and Sterling Marlin, taking the lead from the Coors Light Dodge on lap 464. Still, Gordon wouldn’t have clear sailing; a hard-charging Kasey Kahne, running at the back end of the Top 10 for most of the day, came out of nowhere to charge to second place with 15 laps remaining. A late caution for Travis Kvapil’s engine problems with 9 laps left set up a 3-lap shootout to the finish between Gordon and Kahne; however, the 24 car had a strong restart and was able to hold off the youngster by three-and-a-half car lengths to claim the checkers.It was Kahne’s sixth career second-place finish on the Cup level, and the best result for a Dodge car on the circuit this year. Martin trailed behind in third, followed by Ryan Newman and Rusty Wallace. Wallace’s final spring start at Martinsville started strong, but the 2 car was penalized for speeding under an early caution and sent to the back of the lead lap; fifth was all Wallace could salvage on the day after that. Veterans Sterling Marlin and Ricky Rudd finished 6th and 7th, their best runs of the year.
Points leader Jimmie Johnson struggled for most of the day, falling a lap down multiple times under green and unable to get a grip on the race track. Still, aided by a few “Lucky Dog” passes and some timely cautions, the 48 team was able to adjust the car and boost their driver to an 8th place run, on the lead lap.
“That is what championships are all about,” said Johnson after his run. “Chad (Knaus) made huge changes to the car, and we finally got it to where it would turn.”
Elliott Sadler was 9th, and Joe Nemechek finished 10th for his first Top 10 appearance of the season. Strong runs were also put in by Jason Leffler, who snatched up his best finish of the year in 12th; Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who overcame several tire problems to have a decent 13th-place run; and Kyle Petty, who followed up his Top 10 run with an 18th-place performance despite a spin past the race’s midpoint. Meanwhile, other contenders for the Chase suffered, as Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, and Kevin Harvick were among those involved in wrecks or mechanical problems.
Biffle’s wreck and resulting poor finish of 29th gives Johnson a commanding lead of 160 points heading into next weekend’s race at Texas Motor Speedway. The rest of the Top 10 are separated by just 72 points; Biffle still claims second, followed by Sadler, Martin, and Stewart. Jeff Gordon’s win bumps him up to 6th in the points, with Wallace, Newman, Busch, and Dale Jarrett rounding out the Top 10. Ricky Rudd’s strong finish bumped him up into the Top 35 in points; it’s now Bobby Labonte joining Mike Wallace and Kevin LePage on the outside looking in for qualifying next week.
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