Here Comes Mr. Gordon
September 1, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
Funny thing, though, but two weeks ago, people wondered what was wrong with Gordon.
As if last week’s Sharpie 500 victory didn’t prove it, Sunday’s Southern 500 was an exclamation point.
The Southern 500 is one of NASCAR’s classic races, and Sunday was classic Gordon. He let some other set the pace during the first half, making adjustments and tinkering with his car.
All the while, he stalked the front-runners. Then, with 127 laps to go in the rain-delayed race, Gordon struck – almost out of nowhere.
There was Gordon, hounding then-leader and Winston Cup points leader Sterling Marlin. Soon, there was Gordon, whipping past and pulling away. The race was a long way from being over, with one green-flag pit stop and several restarts left, but Gordon wasn’t going to be beat.
He pulled away from rookie Ryan Newman after a restart with 45 laps left, getting ahead of the field as the sun finally popped through the clouds at Darlington Raceway. It was as if God was saying, “You’re my guy.”
Gordon has been the guy at Darlington six times now, moving him out of a five-way tie for third on the all-time winner’s list at the storied track. Five of those have been in NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway race, matching Cale Yarborough’s record.
“Isn’t that awesome?” Gordon said. “We’re just tickled. This is such an historic race track, so much prestige here to win the Southern 500. It’s a special, special day for us.
“We couldn’t believe we were in victory lane last Saturday. We really can’t believe we’re in victory lane today.”
And, suddenly, Gordon is on fire, winner of two straight races and the leading challenger to move Marlin out of the top spot in the points standings for the first time since the Daytona 500.
Marlin led 113 laps Sunday but ended up fourth, and Gordon chopped into the points lead. Gordon moved to second, 91 out of the lead.
“He’s always the man to beat,” Bill Elliott said of Gordon. “Jeff’s coming up on a good stretch; that team’s really strong. If he doesn’t have any bad luck, he’ll be hard to beat.”
Newman finished 1.7 short of his first Winston Cup victory, with Elliott finishing third. Dale Jarrett was fifth, with defending Southern 500 champion Ward Burton sixth. Kurt Busch passed Tony Stewart on the last lap to finish seventh, with Stewart eighth. Jimmie Johnson was ninth and Jeff Burton 10th.
Darlington was plagued by rain all weekend. Friday’s Busch Series and Winston Cup qualifying were canceled, and Saturday’s Busch race was delayed twice and finally shortened.
Sunday, the skies were threatening, and a light rain/mist fell most of the morning and early afternoon.
But soon after the scheduled start of 1 p.m. (ET), the moisture lifted, and the 1.366-mile track was dried. At 2:15 p.m., drivers were introduced, and 20 minutes later, the engines were fired.
The cars circulated under green/yellow conditions for 19 laps, once getting an aborted one-to-go signal. Finally, at 3:10, more than two hours after the listed starting time, the field got the green flag, and Sterling Marlin and Mark Martin raced into Turn 1.
Martin pulled ahead of Marlin to lead 25 laps, but Elliott sailed past on Lap 45 and stayed up front for 25 laps, too.
Meanwhile, Gordon was struggling with a tight race car.
“That’s what happens when it rains,” Gordon said. “The track changes a lot through the day, and it kept coming to us and coming to us. At the beginning I was just so tight, I couldn’t even drive in the corner, and I couldn’t even get on the brakes. I had to let off real, real early because the front of the car wanted to go straight into the wall.”
Jeff Burton, winner of the Gatorade 200 Busch race, found his way to the front and was one of the best cars Sunday. He led 20 laps, but on Lap 204, Burton got a “Darlington Stripe” on the right side of his car. The caution soon waved for oil – Ricky Craven got into the wall, too – but Burton’s car was damaged and didn’t run as fast as before he hit the fence.
Marlin led 113 laps until Gordon zoomed past him on Lap 240 and pulled away.
“Robbie mentioned something about getting in clean air,” Gordon said. “They busted off a great stop and got me up to third. The car was just unreal on new tires. When the pressures were down, we could really smoke around the bottom of the race track. I got by Newman and got right up there to Sterling. I couldn’t believe that I was passing him because I saw how strong he was all day.
“Then I just checked out from him. I thought I used up the equipment too much, but the DuPont Chevrolet was just awesome. Once I got in clean air, it was adios.”
The next race is the Chevrolet Monte Carlo 400 this Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.