- David Newton, ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter
- 0 Shares
CONCORD, N.C. -- There was a banner being pulled behind a plane that read, "How much does Bobby Ginn owe you?" There was longtime Dale Earnhardt Inc. crew chief Tony Eury Jr. wearing a Hendrick Motorsports shirt for the first time. There was a report that congressional aides were asked to be immunized before coming to the track.
Yes, it was an unusual weekend at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
But once the green flag dropped, it was business as usual for the driver who has dominated most of the season.
Well, sort of.
After a late spinout by Ryan Newman and a nerve-racking green-white-checkered finish because of fuel concerns, Jeff Gordon won for the second straight week and sixth time this season to move 68 points ahead of HMS teammate Jimmie Johnson in his quest for a fifth championship.
He did it by leading 72 laps, compared with one week ago, when he passed Johnson on the final turn for the victory at Talladega.
Winning at a track where he had failed to finish the past five races was, perhaps as much as anything, a signal that this is Gordon's year.
"We needed to get to the finish," Gordon said. "We've had such a hard time getting to the finish, whether we were wrecking or having some kind of mechanical problems.
"If you don't get to finish, you don't know where you'll finish."
Gordon has finished better than everybody almost all season. This was his 19th top-5 -- nobody else but Johnson, with 16, has more than 11 -- and his 25th top-10 in 31 starts.
He appears destined to move within two titles of all-time leaders Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, who have seven each.
He all but admitted it when he referred to a lucky horseshoe as he crossed the finish line.
"I'm going to tell you right now, I don't care what happens with the championship," Gordon said. "This is my year just because of [becoming] a father. Even with the wins we've had and the type of year we've had on and off the track, for me, personally, it's been the most incredible year.
"I hope more than anything we can seal that off with a championship. It would be just one of those dream years I don't think I could ever touch again, even better than '98 with the 13 wins and championship."
This season is eerily similar to '98, when Gordon had 26 top-5s and 28 top-10s to go with the wins.
"I've seen it before, and it always had a happy ending," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "I hope we can finish it off."
There's no reason to think he won't.
"Jeff has been the guy to beat all year long," said Clint Bowyer, who finished second but slipped from 54 points out of the lead in third place to 78 back.
"Both of those guys [Gordon and Johnson] have been on top of their game. The whole organization has. They're going to have to stub their toe a little bit for us to catch them. You're not going to just go out and lead the most laps and win to run them down, because they're going to be the guy[s] behind you."
Gordon was behind Johnson for most of the first half of this race. Johnson led 95 laps before coming out of the 10th caution with 119 laps remaining in 16th as Gordon took the lead for the first time.
"We were really a second-place car to Jimmie Johnson all night," Gordon said. "He really had us covered."
Johnson was coming on strong with 104 laps remaining when he spun out on the backstretch. He was 30th, well behind Gordon in fourth, after minor repairs to the right rear of his car.
"Nice and easy," crew chief Chad Knaus said. " We've still got a hundred laps to go. We still can win this thing."
Johnson tried, but he never became a factor en route to a 14th-place finish.
Meanwhile, Gordon was on cruise control. He had more than a two-second lead over HMS teammate Kyle Busch with 12 laps remaining when a 14th caution came out.
Then it became a game of nerves and negotiations. The field was stopped with 10 laps to go to clean up oil that was spread around the bottom of the track.
During the 12-minute delay, there was much communication between the crews of Gordon and Busch, with Hendrick acting as the intermediary.
"I'm not asking for anything more than be smart about how we race," Gordon said.
The message was relayed to Busch by Hendrick.
"No wrecks, OK?" he said.
"Sounds good," Busch replied.
Hendrick then went back to Gordon and said, "I told him not to wreck and be careful. Look at the big picture and be safe."
Listening to Busch rehash the conversation after the race, Bowyer jokingly said, "I think my boss said, 'I hope he wrecks the 24.'"
Busch wasn't Gordon's problem. Fuel was.
When the race restarted with five laps remaining, Gordon's car sputtered as though it were out of gas, allowing Newman to explode past everybody on the outside from fourth place.
But before Newman could complete a lap, he spun out, giving the lead back to Gordon and forcing the green-white-checkered finish.
Bowyer tried to jump inside of Gordon, who spun his tires, on the final restart. But he mistimed his move and gave Gordon a much-needed bump that allowed him to pull away for his 81st career win.
"He came to Victory Lane and said, 'Sorry I hit you,'" Gordon said of Bowyer, by far the surprise of this Chase. "I said, 'Thank you, because if you hadn't hit me, you would have passed me.'"
Right now, we're just having one of those spectacular seasons. We're just going to try to finish it out and see what it gets.
-- Jeff Gordon
That's the way Gordon's season has gone. He had more than a 300-point lead after the first 26 races, and were it not for the revised format that awards 10 bonus points for wins to Chase contenders, he would have entered the 10-race playoff in first instead of 20 points behind Johnson.
He's had only one finish outside the top five in the first five Chase events, an 11th at Dover.
Now he heads to four tracks where, if the first time through is an indication, he'll be strong again.
First comes Martinsville, where only a good blocking job by Johnson kept him out of Victory Lane. Then it's on to Atlanta, where he started fifth and finished 12th.
From there, he goes to Texas, where he started first and finished fourth, then to Phoenix, where he started first and finished first.
A repeat performance and he could have the title all but locked up by the time he gets to the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Nobody other than Bowyer certainly is in a position to make a run. Tony Stewart, the driver Gordon most feared behind the top three before the race, hit two cars -- those of Paul Menard and Kasey Kahne -- during a pit stop to turn a potential win into a seventh-place finish that left him 198 back.
Everybody else is at least 240 points back.
Gordon has been so dominant that he actually was asked whether he has 25 more career wins in him to catch David Pearson for second place on NASCAR's all-time victory list.
"Yes, he does," Hendrick said.
Gordon shook his head.
"Do I have 25 left in me?" he asked. "I don't know. A couple of years ago, I didn't think I had any left in me. Right now, we're just having one of those spectacular seasons. We're just going to try to finish it out and see what it gets."
No, you won't hear Gordon talking as though he has this wrapped up. He's been around too long and seen too much happen to let his mind go there.
"There's no doubt this team has amazing chemistry about it." Gordon said. "We have some great things going our way. Call it luck, karma, whatever you want to call it.
"But there's still five races to go, and all of that has to continue for us to get that championship. Those things that can take you out of it can happen any time."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeff Gordon sputtered on low fuel, got torched by Ryan Newman on a restart with five laps to go, spun his tires before the green-white-checkered finish ... and still won Saturday night at Lowe's Motor Speedway.