TALLADEGA, Ala. -- At the track where Dale Earnhardt
dominated, and on the day he would have turned 56, Jeff Gordon
scored career victory No. 77.
It was the fitting venue, the perfect day, for Gordon to move
past Earnhardt on NASCAR's wins list.
And, as expected, it was wildly unpopular.
Fans littered the track with debris Sunday as Gordon crossed the
finish line under caution at Talladega Superspeedway to move into
sixth place on the win list.
"I never caused a riot before for winning -- well, maybe once or
twice," Gordon laughed.
It was the same reaction he received last week in Phoenix when
he tied Earnhardt's mark and flew a No. 3 flag on his victory lap.
That gesture didn't sit well with Earnhardt fans, even though Dale Earnhardt Jr. called the tribute classy and urged his "Red Army"
of supporters to stop throwing beer cans out of safety concerns.
"I thought Junior had more power," Gordon said. "I thought
they'd throw toilet paper, which is what he asked them to throw. I
saw maybe one roll."
But Talladega is Earnhardt country. The Intimidator won 10 times
here, and his legion of fans adopted his son following Earnhardt's
2001 death. The fans turn the grandstands into a sea of red, and
when Junior charges to the front the roar is deafening.
It's what made this the perfect place for Gordon to surpass the
seven-time champion. Although their fans mix like oil and water,
Earnhardt and Gordon were pals. They shared a competitive rivalry
on the track and a healthy friendship away from it.
Earnhardt would have been proud, and Gordon was conflicted about
"On one side I just want to jump up and down and be fired up
about getting 77 here at Talladega where three-quarters of the
grandstands were pulling against us," Gordon said. "And then on
the other side, I respected Dale so much, learned so much from him,
today being his birthday and knowing how many of those people up
there wanted to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. win today -- it's tough.
"I certainly didn't want to start a riot, and hopefully nobody
got injured. But I wanted to break that record. I keep going back
and forth. Why did it have to happen at Talladega?"
The ending was anticlimactic and confusing, finishing under
caution with Gordon unsure if he'd actually won. Nobody was quite
sure after two separate accidents on the first lap of a two-lap
shootout to the finish froze the field and had NASCAR scrambling to
make sense of the finish.
Gordon, who started from the pole, ran up front early but was
14th on a restart with 10 laps to go. He stormed to the front, and
with three laps to go passed Jamie McMurray for the lead a
split-second before a caution came out.
It set up a the green-white-checkered flag finish, with Gordon
out front on the restart. But before the field reached full speed,
a wreck far behind the leaders brought out the caution and
effectively ended the race.
NASCAR makes only one attempt to complete the race in overtime,
and if a caution comes out, the field is instantly frozen. So when
Elliott Sadler bumped the back of Greg Biffle to trigger a wreck,
Gordon was essentially the winner.
But it was unclear as the action continued.
Tony Stewart, embroiled in controversy all week for likening
NASCAR to pro wrestling, was knocked into the wall far ahead of the
first accident. He bounced off the outside wall, slid down the
track and into the inside wall, then stood fuming on the apron as
he waited for the field to pass. He made an angry gesture at
McMurray and David Gilliland as they passed under caution.
With all that going on, Gordon was too hesitant to claim the
As the field slowly headed to the flag, and the beer cans began
to fly over the fence and onto his car, he accepted it.
"I love it," he radioed. "That's awesome."
Gordon made one attempt at a celebratory burnout, which he later
admitted was a bad decision because it egged fans on to throw more
debris at him.
Track officials warned fans they would be arrested for throwing
anything on the track, and 10 fans were detained as Gordon's crew
frantically called for security help to get the team spotter out of
"It don't look like it's something you can control," Earnhardt
NASCAR condemned the debris throwing.
"It's very unfortunate a few unruly fans can ruin things for a
lot of people," spokesman Jim Hunter said. "The track put a lot
of effort into preventing this type of behavior. Our fans are
passionate, but this type of behavior doesn't represent a majority
of our fans."
Earnhardt Jr., who made a brief run at the victory, finished
seventh. But unlike last week, when he visited Gordon in Victory
Lane, he stayed away from the celebration.
"I told him this week, I said, 'You win this one and I ain't
coming into Victory Lane this time. That caused too much
trouble,'" Junior said. "He's a great race car driver. I knew
years ago he would eventually pass my old man. I think he has the
opportunity to pass a couple more."
Jimmie Johnson, Gordon's teammate, finished second as Hendrick
Motorsports cars continued their season-long domination. Hendrick
drivers have won six of the first nine races.
Stewart, who had a disastrous race but was still in position to
race for the win at the end, wound up 28th.
Ironically, he needed a debris caution -- something he questioned
the integrity of this week -- to save his race. The two-time
champion was penalized for speeding on pit road early in the race
and went one lap down after returning to the pits.
But he got the lap back shortly after when NASCAR found debris
on the track and called for a caution. He struggled on the restart,
though, and fell out of the draft. But he got another break moments
later when Clint Bowyer wrecked.