Gordon Wins Pepsi 400
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Jeff Gordon won a three-lap sprint to the finish Saturday night, winning the Pepsi 400 and putting himself virtually out of reach in the Winston Cup championship race.
It was Gordon’s 11th victory of the season and the 40th of his career. Combined with Mark Martin’s 16th-place finish, Gordon added 70 points to his series lead and is 358 ahead of the second-place driver with three races remaining.
``I didn’t know how it was going to shake out,″ Gordon said. ``I knew there was some shuffling going on back there. Then Bobby got up there with a whole head of steam and I said, `I’ve got to block that.‴
By staying out front to the end, the 27-year-old Gordon only has to finish 37th or better in each of the remaining races to win his second straight title and third in four years. If he gains 12 points on Martin next Sunday at Phoenix, the championship will be over.
Gordon led three times for 49 of the 160 laps, including the final 38. He averaged 144.549 mph and won $184,325, including a $60,000 bonus from series sponsor Winston for winning while leading the points. That prize builds at $10,000 per race and had not been won since Gordon’s last victory on Sept. 6 in the Southern 500 in Darlington.
This race was originally scheduled on July 4 but was postponed by the wildfires that scorched central Florida. The weather also affected Saturday night’s race.
The third rain shower of the night prompted NASCAR, which wanted to give the estimated 170,000 spectators the show they paid for, to red flag the race with five laps remaining.
Engines were restarted 37 minutes later and the last three laps were run under a green flag, but nobody could catch Gordon.
On the final trip around the 2 1/2-mile oval, Mike Skinner pulled alongside second-place Jeremy Mayfield and, as those two battled, Gordon pulled away.
Suddenly, pole-winner Bobby Labonte shot out of the pack, moving all the way from fifth to second, where he came up just a few car-lengths short of Gordon.
Skinner finished third, followed by Mayfield, Rusty Wallace, Terry Labonte, Ward Burton and Ricky Craven, who got into the car in relief of Ernie Irvan, still hurting from an accident last Sunday at Talladega.
Daytona and Talladega, the longest and fastest ovals in the Winston Cup series, are the only tracks where NASCAR uses carburetor restrictor plates to slow down the stock cars. Gordon has done well in the restrictor-plate races, finishing second last week in Talladega before winning Saturday night.
``These last two weeks have been the best restrictor-plate engine I’ve ever had,″ Gordon said.
Skinner said, ``If I could have gotten a good head of steam, I could have stayed with Bobby. As it was, I’m just glad I held off Jeremy.″
The restricted cars tend to stay in big groups most of the race and, when trouble happens, there’s usually a big crash.
Saturday night’s race was no exception, with two multi-car crashes.
The first came on lap 32 when Kevin Lepage lost control coming off turn two and slid up into the wall, clipping the front of Michael Waltrip’s car. That set off an 11-car melee that also involved Jeff Green, Rich Bickle, Johnny Benson, Ted Musgrave, Hut Stricklin, Steve Grissom, Geoff Bodine, Dan Pardus and Darrell Waltrip.
Lepage came away with a fractured right shoulder blade.
On lap 141, Kenny Irwin, who had to pit only moments before because of a cut tire that took him out of the lead, cut off Chad Little at the exit to turn four and ignited a nine-car crash that included Ricky Rudd, Brett Bodine, Jimmy Spencer, Steve Park, Jerry Nadeau, defending race winner John Andretti and Andy Hillenburg. There were no injuries in that one.
At that point, Gordon’s Chevrolet was out front with the Fords of Dale Jarrett _ last week’s winner at Talladega Superspeedway _ Mayfield and Wallace lined up right behind him and thinking about ganging up on the leader.
But that strategy went out the window on lap 149 when Jarrett cut down a tire. As he slowed in the midst of traffic, there was a shuffle up front that brought Skinner’s Chevy to third.