Gordon passes Earnhardt on career wins list
TALLADEGA, Ala. — As beer cans bounced around his car, Jeff Gordon crossed the finish line Sunday for win No. 77 — breaking a tie with the late Dale Earnhardt on NASCAR's career victory list.
It was only fitting that it happened at Talladega Superspeedway, where Earnhardt — who would have been 56 on Sunday — won 10 times in his Cup career.
But it was anticlimactic and confusing, ending under caution to leave Gordon unsure if he'd actually won and taken over sixth place on the wins list.
"Is it over?" he radioed his crew. "Is it over? Is it official?"
Nobody knew 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.
It was a stark difference to last week, when Gordon won in Phoenix to tie Earnhardt's mark and flew a No. 3 flag on his victory lap as a tribute to the seven-time champion. The gesture was poorly received, though, as fans threw debris at him even though Dale Earnhardt Jr. immediately — and publicly — praised the tribute.
Junior condemned fans for throwing beer cans during the week, imploring his "Red Army" of supporters to instead toss toilet paper out of safety concerns.
Track officials did their part, warning during the pre-race ceremony that any fan caught throwing debris onto the track would be arrested. They made good on it, too, hauling fans away in handcuffs as officers stationed in the stands fruitlessly tried to stop it.
Gordon's crew, meanwhile, frantically called for security help to get the team spotter out of the stands.
"It don't look like it's something you can control," Earnhardt Jr. sighed.
As the beer cans rained down on his car, Gordon cut short his on-track celebration and drove to Victory Lane.
"I never caused a riot before for winning — well, maybe once or twice," Gordon said. "I thought Junior had more power. I thought they'd throw toilet paper, which is what he asked them to throw. I saw maybe one roll."
But Gordon was understanding of the fan reaction.
"There are a lot of fans out there who are Earnhardt fans who don't want to see (the record) broken," he said. "I appreciate the enthusiasm ... the opinions of all the fans out there. What are you going to do?"
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."
Gordon, who started on the pole, ran up front at times during the race but was 14th on a restart with 10 laps to go. But 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 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 Jamie McMurray and David Gilliland as they passed under caution.
With all that going on, Gordon was too hesitant to claim the win.
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 don't see any toilet paper," crew chief Steve Letarte said.
"I love that. It's awesome," Gordon replied.
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.
Kurt Busch was third, Gilliland fourth and McMurray finished fifth. Kevin Harvick was sixth, followed by Earnhardt, David Stremme, Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr.
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.