05/02/05 — No. 24 car near-perfect at Talladega

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No. 24 car near-perfect at Talladega

By Wire
Published in Sports on May 2, 2005 2:02 PM

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- It's rare when a NASCAR Nextel Cup driver has an almost perfect race car.

Jeff Gordon couldn't help but be a little in awe of the way his No. 24 Chevrolet performed during Sunday's Aaron's 499.

"This is the most dominating performance we've ever had on a plate track," Gordon said after leading 139 of 194 laps on the way to an overtime victory at Talladega Superspeedway. "I just couldn't believe at times how good that car was.

"Talladega is not a handling track. It's pure speed, and man, this car had it."

Gordon used to say that racing at Talladega and Daytona, the only tracks at which NASCAR requires the horsepower-sapping carburetor restrictor plates, made him uncomfortable.

No more.

"This is the type of racing where experience is really key," Gordon said. "The more that I get used to watching my mirror, using the air and having the kind of car I had today, I feel like I get better at restrictor-plate racing.

"There are certain parts of it I love. The draft is amazing. I can't describe how amazing it is out there. What I don't like is how close we have to race and the big crashes."

The way the cars race most of the day at Talladega -- in huge packs two- and three-wide -- at least one huge multicar crash is nearly inevitable. Sunday's race saw one of the biggest.

But Gordon was able to avoid the 25-car melee that took out several contenders on lap 133, as well as a six-car accident just one lap before the scheduled 188-lap finish.

Gordon fought off challenger after challenger to grab his 10th victory overall and fourth in the last five races at the two plate tracks. It was also his fourth win on the 2.66-mile Talladega oval.

At the end, Gordon held off Tony Stewart and Michael Waltrip in a two-lap shootout set up by a six-car crash with one lap remaining in regulation that ended the chances of fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The crash on lap 187 involved Earnhardt, series points leader Jimmie Johnson and pole-winner Kevin Harvick.

"I definitely did not want to see that last caution," Gordon said. "They were shuffling and dicing back there before that last caution and I was in a better position before that (last) restart."

Gordon said he was a little nervous about the other contenders getting a good run at him on the final restart on lap 193. But he got a good start and stayed out front as the other drivers fought it out behind him.

Stewart, with Waltrip giving him a hard push, grabbed the second spot, but finished 0.192 seconds -- about two car lengths -- behind the winner. It was the 13th consecutive victory for Chevy at the Alabama track.

"Michael pushed me all the way down the backstretch on the white flag lap and I still couldn't catch the 24," said Stewart, who finished second at Talladega for the fourth time. "Finishing in the top two isn't bad at this place."

Gordon, who defended his victory in this race last year and added this win to triumphs in February in the Daytona 500 and last July at Daytona in the Pepsi 400, has grabbed the mantle of near invincibility on plate tracks once held by the late Dale Earnhardt and inherited by Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip, who drives for Dale Earnhardt, Inc.

Junior and Waltrip have won nine of the last 17 plate races and came from near the back of the 43-car field to get into contention on Sunday. But this one was all Gordon as he raced to his third victory in nine races this season and the 72nd of his career.

Waltrip did get past him on lap 183, shuffling Gordon to fourth. But Gordon charged back to second place on the next lap and retook the lead on lap 185.

"It's all about getting a push out there," Gordon said. "They could pass me if I gave them too much room, but if I got the slightest push from behind, watch out. My car was awesome."

Jeremy Mayfield finished fourth, followed by Jamie McMurray, Elliott Sadler and defending series champion Kurt Busch. Earnhardt, who has five Talladega victories, including one last fall, was able to continue after the last crash and finished 15th.

With Johnson ending up 20th, his lead over Busch in the season standings dwindled from 173 to 130. Gordon moved from fourth, 233 points behind his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, to third, 151 back.

The big crash, topped only by a 27-car accident at Talladega in 2003, started when Earnhardt nudged the rear of Mike Wallace's car as they headed toward turn one. Wallace then came together with Johnson and slid sideways, setting off a melee that eventually involved more than half the 43-car field.

So many cars ended up packed together in the muddy infield grass between turns one and two that it looked like an auto junkyard. NASCAR stopped the race for 43 minutes, 21 seconds to remove the cars, clean up the debris and make repairs.

to the energy-absorbing SAFER Barrier.

Among the cars damaged, the worst were those of Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, Joe Nemechek, Mike Bliss, Bobby Hamilton Jr., Scott Wimmer, Carl Edwards, Mike Skinner, Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch.

"It seemed like everybody was minding their own business," Rusty Wallace said. "It was just regular restrictor plate racing, pretty boring out there.

"I still don't know what happened. Obviously, somebody bumped someone else too hard. Sooner or later you're going to have this on this type of track."