Pit strategy puts Gordon up front for good

Updated: October 24, 2005, 2:14 AM ET
Associated Press

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- In a difficult year, Jeff Gordon needed this one.

Gordon held off Tony Stewart in a three-lap dash to win Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, his first victory since May 1. And though he's not a factor in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, it was a step in the right direction for a team with a 26-year-old crew chief who has been on the job only six weeks since the departure of Robbie Loomis.

Nextel Cup Series Standings
(unofficial through Oct. 23)
Rank Driver Behind
1. Tony Stewart --
2. (-1) Jimmie Johnson -15
3. +1 Ryan Newman -63
4. (-1) Greg Biffle -83
5. (+1) Carl Edwards -149
6. +1 Rusty Wallace -166
7. (-2) Mark Martin -170
8. (+2) Kurt Busch -172
9. Matt Kenseth -172
10. -2 Jeremy Mayfield -216

Stewart, meanwhile, dominated early and took a 15-point lead over third-place finisher Jimmie Johnson in the Chase. The yellow flag came out a track-record 19 times, and 113 laps were run under caution.

Gordon, a four-time champion, didn't qualify for the 10-race playoff and had finished in the top 10 just three times in 14 races leading up to Sunday.

"It's been a tough year and we certainly could use a win and today was just phenomenal," Gordon said, patting crew chief Steve Letarte. "That was a great call he made to stay out that one time -- that's really what won us the race today."

The call came when the 13th caution flew on lap 343 after a spin by Casey Mears.

Told to stay on the track, Gordon assumed the lead when he and five others didn't follow the other top contenders onto pit road. Also staying out were the Roush Racing trio of Greg Biffle, Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth. Stewart came off pit road seventh.

Stewart had dominated to that point, leading 283 of 343 laps, and he made quick work of the first six cars and seemed content to wait for Gordon to fade. Gordon was racing on tires more than 50 laps older than Stewart's, but instead pulled away.

"We were just phenomenal once we got out front," Gordon said.

Gordon had to hold the lead through three more restarts, as well as the sight of Stewart nudging Johnson aside to take second place, but won by .235 seconds.

"There was no catching Jeff," Stewart said. "I don't know what makes him so fast at the end of the day like that. He was just too strong to keep up with."

Gordon's 73rd career victory gave him a sweep of the season's two races on the .526-mile speedway -- the oldest, shortest and tightest run in NASCAR's premier series.

As he did in April, Gordon said he was dedicating the victory at the Subway 500 to the 10 people killed a year ago when a Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed on the way to the track.

The runner-up finish was the second in a row for Stewart here. He led 247 laps in the spring before a tire came off with 70 laps to go. This time, he again dominated until the shadows grew longer, then wasn't as strong after his last two pit stops.

But his dominance did give him 10 bonus points -- five for leading a lap and five for leading the most in the race -- to take first place to himself with four races left.

He and Johnson came in tied for the lead in a very tight Nextel Cup chase.

Biffle, who was third to start the day, just 11 points behind, wound up 20th, and fourth-place Ryan Newman, who was 17 points back, ran 10th to grab third place.

Newman is now 63 points back, and Biffle fell to fourth, 83 off the pace.

He also incurred the wrath of Stewart when it was over.

After a restart with 52 laps to go, Biffle was first in line and trying to get back on the lead lap. He made Gordon and Johnson work to get past him. Stewart was next in line, and Biffle gave him no quarter either, holding off Stewart for several laps.

Stewart finally passed him with 37 laps to go and had three chances to take a shot at the leaders, but needed 26 of those laps to get past Johnson and was finished.

"He's an idiot. It's no wonder Kevin Harvick's wanted to kill him so many times," Stewart said of Biffle, who has had numerous high profile dust-ups with Harvick.

"They name streets after guys like that -- one way and dead end," Stewart said. "He's a nice guy, but right now, if he came over, I'm afraid I'd have to strangle him."

Johnson was no more pleased with Stewart after being nudged aside entering the first turn when Stewart got his nose under Johnson, causing the car to wiggle.

"He dove it in there, I guess got in there far enough to get into me, knock me out of the way," Johnson said. "If I could have got back, I would have repaid the favor."

The race was much tougher for Chase contenders Martin, Carl Edwards and Rusty Wallace, who started the day fifth through seventh in the points standings.

Martin finished 34th in a backup car, Edwards was 26th, one lap down, and Wallace was running fifth when he crashed on a restart with 19 laps to go. He finished 19th.

Edwards is now fifth, 149 points back. Wallace is 166 back, and Martin is 170 behind.

"He's an idiot. It's no wonder Kevin Harvick's wanted to kill him so many times," Stewart said of Biffle, who has had numerous high profile dust-ups with Harvick.

"They name streets after guys like that -- one way and dead end," Stewart said. "He's a nice guy, but right now, if he came over, I'm afraid I'd have to strangle him."

Johnson was no more pleased with Stewart after being nudged aside entering the first turn when Stewart got his nose under Johnson, causing the car to wiggle.

"He dove it in there, I guess got in there far enough to get into me, knock me out of the way," Johnson said. "If I could have got back, I would have repaid the favor."

The race was much tougher for Chase contenders Martin, Carl Edwards and Rusty Wallace, who started the day fifth through seventh in the points standings.

Martin finished 34th in a backup car, Edwards was 26th, one lap down, and Wallace was running fifth when he crashed on a restart with 19 laps to go. He finished 19th.

Edwards is now fifth, 149 points back. Wallace is 166 back, and Martin is 170 behind.


Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press

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