King of the Mountains
Jeff Gordon wins 84th career Cup race at Pocono
By: Matt Taliaferro | 6/13/11, 11:24 AM EDT
Photo by ASP, Inc.
by Matt Taliaferro
You know something big has happened when Jeff Gordon hits a career milestone. Gordon, NASCAR’s active leader in career victories and a four-time Cup champion, has a portfolio to rival any driver in professional motorsports worldwide.
But in winning the 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, Gordon reached yet another mark — in fact, two — by earning his 84th career Cup victory, tying him for third all-time with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip. The win was also his fifth at Pocono, which ties him with Bill Elliott for the most all-time wins at the 2.5-mile triangle.
“I really can't even express in words what it means to tie Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison at 84 wins,” Gordon said. “I just never thought it would ever happen for me, or really when I got in this sport for anybody to win that many races is amazing.”
It was win Gordon had to fight for in a grueling three hour and 26 minute race that witnessed more mechanical issues than accidents. The most noteworthy failure was a tire on the No. 11 Toyota of Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin, a four-time Pocono winner, led 76 of the first 101 laps with a car that seemed to have the perfect balance of speed and handling. However, a flat tire with 42 laps remaining while the field circled under caution dropped him to 21st on the restart. That opened the door for Gordon, who took the lead from Juan Pablo Montoya when the green flag waved. He then led 37 of the remaining 41 laps — surrendering the point only under green flag pit stops — to bag his second win of the season.
“When we left pit road and have a flat tire … it’s just not your day,” a disappointed Hamlin said. “When it did that, it just sheared the tire, broke a brake line so I had no brakes… just a slew of problems.”
Pole-sitter Kurt Busch finished second, 2.965 seconds, behind Gordon.
“I’m exhausted,” Kurt Busch said. “It was a great, hard-fought battle with Jeff Gordon at the end. It started about 130 laps in, about 70 to go, where we were able to take the lead, stretch it out. Then there was a caution (and) the 24 beat us out of the pits.
“I thought we could gain on him after 15 laps into the run — we were able to do that most of the day. We were able to do that again at the end, but we just couldn't close the gap far enough. The old ‘Golden Boy’ had it in him today. He ran strong.”
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top 5. Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Toyota failed post-race inspection, where NASCAR officials found the car 1/16” too low on the left front. Any penalties that may come from the infraction will be announced on Tuesday. Busch’s probationary status will not factor into any potential fines or point-dockings.
Having tied Allison and Waltrip for third in all-time victories, Gordon now sets his sights on David Pearson’s 105 wins. However, Gordon’s three victories since the start of the 2008 season are a far cry from his 1995-2001 heyday, when he racked up an incredible 56 wins. And at 39 years of age, twilight may have set on a career that seemed to hold the promise of hitting the 100-win mark.
“There were moments in (1998) where I was like, ‘Man, this is kind of easy,’” Gordon said. “We won 13 races that year. I’m telling you, as soon as you start to think that, that’s when it comes up and smacks you upside the head. 1999 came and it got our attention (seven wins). Then 2000 came (three wins). To me, those are wake-up calls of how hard it is to win, how hard it is to win championships, and that what we were doing was just extraordinary, and it doesn’t last forever.
“That stuff is going to not come to an end, but you’re going to have some rough times. It’s just the way the world works and the way the competition works.”
Whether Gordon hits the magical 100-race win mark, his career has been remarkable — and groundbreaking. His first start was in the 1992 Hooter’s 500 — a race many cite as the most notable in NASCAR’s modern era. Richard Petty made his final career start that day at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Concurrently, Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki settled a championship battle that found the former a winner by a scant 10 points. And along the way, Gordon has won all of NASCAR’s crown jewel events on multiple occasions, with three Daytona 500, four Brickyard 400, five Southern 500 and three Coca-Cola 600 triumphs to his credit.
As a 21 year-old rookie the following season, Gordon set the mold that many drivers were sculpted of through the 1990s and early 2000s. Young, marketable, clean-cut, well-spoken — Gordon was the representative the sport looked to as it rocketed to popularity in the late-’90s.
And now, 20 years after that first start, Gordon finds himself still winning and still chasing championships.
“I don't want to just be in the Chase,” Gordon said. “Being in the Chase, at 40 years old, is not enough. Our sponsors like it and all, but that’s not enough. I want to be a threat for the championship. I’m not saying we’re there, but today is definitely a big step in getting us there.”
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