SONOMA, Calif. -- Transmission woes took a heavy toll Sunday in the Dodge/Save Mart 350, costing Jimmie Johnson the points lead and forcing teammate Jeff Gordon to raise questions about a run for the championship.
"I'm getting to the point where I don't care about points. I don't even care about the championship," a disgusted Gordon said. "All I care about is getting our stuff going and getting ourselves to be in these races where we can be in contention to win."
After starting from the pole and leading the first 32 laps Sunday at twisting Infineon Raceway, a linkage problem cost Gordon a lap and any chance at repeating his victory here last year. He wound up 33rd and next to last on the lead lap.
Johnson's car kept sticking in third gear and he saw his 49-point lead over Greg Biffle coming into the race evaporate into a 22-point deficit.
Biffle finished 14th and Johnson, 36th, one lap behind winner Tony Stewart.
"Some other guys that were running the same brand [transmission] had some problems too. We just won't use it again," Johnson said.
Kyle Busch was the third Hendrick Motorsports entry to lock in gear, ending up 13 laps down in 40th place.
Robby Gordon also had transmission difficulties that cost him a lap, but a rebound late in the race carried him to a 16th-place finish.
Even winner Stewart had some bad moments, driving the final laps of the race -- including his winning pass of Ricky Rudd -- one-handed while holding his car in third gear.
"I could survive without fourth, but I just couldn't survive without third. It made it real tough getting around the track one-handed," Stewart said.
Greg Biffle rejoiced Sunday as he took the Nextel Cup points lead for the first time in his career.
"It sounds really good," he said. "We wanted better than a 14th place finish here and think we deserved it, but it was just unfortunate the caution came out towards the end. We lost about six spots because of that, so that might have moved us into the top 10 -- probably eighth -- but we were off a little bit today."
Biffle, who also leads the series with five victories this season, said he stayed on the track and off the gas to conserve fuel Sunday. He gained a five-point bonus by leading briefly during a series of green flag pit stops.
"Even if I only lead it for a week, I wanted to be the points leader," Biffle said. "This team has worked really hard toward being the points leader."
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s hopes of turning around a miserable season came to an early end Sunday -- also as a result of a broken transmission.
"I didn't have first or second gear from the first lap," the downcast Earnhardt said. "We tried a new transmission here and it hadn't given me troubles all weekend. Right from the first corner & I couldn't get into second. Then it just tore it all out."
He bounced off Mike Bliss then spun and slammed hard into the first turn wall, heavily damaging his car.
Junior came into Sunday's race 17th in the standings after finishing 14th, 33rd, 22nd, 33rd and 17th in his last five races. He lost one spot Sunday to 18th, 543 points behind.
"I'm just frustrated that we put ourselves in this position. The transmission was a new, trick transmission and it didn't work. So last year's transmission was pretty good," Earnhardt said.
He re-entered the race 13 laps behind, but quickly returned to the garage area for more repairs.
The weekend started optimistically for Earnhardt, who qualified 10th -- his best showing since starting fifth at Daytona in the season-opener and his best effort ever at Infineon.
Ricky Rudd came within a little over 2 seconds of repeating history. His last Cup victory came three years and 108 races ago at this course, then known as Sears Point.
Rudd, plagued by a fuel level so low he lost power on the bumps, fought off Tony Stewart until lap 100.
Rudd conquered the twisting road course in California's wine country on June 23, 2002 -- nipping Stewart for the victory.
"We've done a good job all year. We just finally got some results that the team deserved," said Rudd, who drives for the Wood Brothers.
The so-called "ringers" hired by teams to compete at Infineon -- one of two road courses on the Nextel Cup circuit -- had a mixed day.
Journeyman road racer Ron Fellows fared the best, finishing eighth after starting dead last in the 43-car field.
Boris Said had an up and down day, running as high as fourth before a speeding violation on pit road dropped him to 32nd. He recovered to 13th before a late-race collision with Jeff Burton dropped him to 17th at the finish.
The victory by Tony Stewart was the 43rd for Joe Gibbs Racing. ... A year ago, Greg Biffle left Infineon 18th in the points. ... Stewart is the eighth different winner in 16 Cup races this season. ... Chevrolet now has seven victories in 2005, one less than Ford. Dodge has won just once.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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