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Gordon fades into Richmond night

9/10/2005

RICHMOND, Va. -- Jeff Gordon challenged his team to be
almost perfect Saturday night and get him into NASCAR's Chase for
the Nextel Cup. When it faltered, he did, too, and the
four-time champion's bid to win his fifth was all but doomed.

Unofficially, the end came just past the midpoint of the
Chevrolet Rock & Roll 400, when Gordon's Chevrolet hit the outside
wall exiting turn 2 on the 212th lap.

"I'm done now," he told his team over the radio.

Officially, it came when he finished 30th, and 12th in the
points race.

"It was going to be a long night no matter what," Gordon said
after the race. "I don't think we had a car capable of getting
into [contention] anyway. … The car wasn't really that much
different after I hit the wall than it was before."

The accident, and the numerous pit stops it necessitated under
caution, dropped the familiar No. 24 to 35th on the grid, and when
the checkered flag finally flew, he joined Dale Earnhardt Jr. as
the biggest stars left out of NASCAR's 10-race playoff.

Earnhardt was officially eliminated last weekend in California.

Jamie McMurray later became the driver with the hardest luck in
the 2-year-old format when he crashed on the 361st lap while trying
to catch Ryan Newman for 10th place in the standings. Last season,
McMurray missed the Chase by just 15 points.

"I don't really know what happened," he said after climbing
from his badly damaged car. "The caution was out and I started to
slow down and just got run into."

The contact was with Tony Raines, who twice seemed to close down
on McMurray's Ford when McMurray tried to move to the inside. The
second contact sent McMurray spinning into the inside wall, and he
drove his car to the garage area, his night over.

McMurray started the night with a one-point lead over Newman for
the final spot in the playoff, but started 32nd to Newman's eighth
and was behind once the race started.

"You have 25 other races to try to make it into this, and we
just didn't run well enough in those," a smiling McMurray said.
"I could see Ryan ahead of me all night and they told me I had to
beat him, but I just couldn't get there. It's frustrating."

Other drivers who went into the night with a chance to make the
Chase and didn't were Elliott Sadler, who climbed from 13th to
11th, but was still 66 points behind Newman, and pole-sitter Kevin
Harvick, who finished 14th, behind Gordon and McMurray.

Gordon's crash was the most glaring mistake he and his team made,
but far from the only one, even after he said earlier in the week
it would take near perfection from everyone for him to erase a
30-point deficit and pass two drivers to get to 10th in the
standings.

After starting sixth, he gradually faded to 13th. Then, when the
field headed for pit road just past 115 laps, he left and had to
return because one of the lug nuts on his car wasn't tight. The
miscue shuffled him to 28th in the field.

For Gordon, making the Chase would have been a remarkable
comeback after finishing 10 of the last 11 races outside the top
10, a frustrating spell that caused him to say after a 21st-place
showing last weekend that his team didn't deserve a top-10 spot.

"Now we've just got to put this behind us and try to figure out
what's wrong with our race team," Gordon said. "The bottom line
is we're way off."

Missing the playoffs may also help expedite change on his team.

Crew chief Robbie Loomis, who was with Gordon when he won his
last series championship in 2001, said this week he "probably"
won't be back next year. Loomis' contract runs out this season, and
he said he's leaning toward doing something new.