HAMPTON, Ga. — Jeff Gordon was sliding all over the track those final 10 laps, doing everything he could to hold off five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson.
It was a thrilling display by two of the sport’s biggest stars, who drove the high-banked Atlanta Motor Speedway like it was nothing more than a little dirt track.
When Gordon held on at the end Tuesday, taking the checkered flag for his third win of the year and 85th of his career, there was little doubt he’ll be making a serious run at his fifth Cup title.
Ohhhh, we can’t wait for these two to go at it again in the Chase for the championship.
“I’ve been trying to step it up for 10 years,” Gordon said, referring to the decade he’s gone since the last of his four titles, a period when he ceded dominance to his teammate Johnson.
But the driver of the No. 24 car isn’t ready to fade away just yet. Spurred on by a new crew chief, Gordon is going through a career renaissance at age 40, already winning more races this season than he did the last three years combined. He’s certainly feeling good about his chances heading to the Chase, which begins after next weekend’s race at Richmond.
“I’m just excited to go to the racetrack,” Gordon said. “It doesn’t matter where we go — our cars are competitive, we’re having a blast out there and I think we have more to come when the Chase starts.”
With his win in the rain-delayed AdvoCare 500, Gordon snapped a tie with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for third on the career victory list. Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105) are the only drivers in Cup history with more wins than Gordon.
“I totally forgot about that,” said Gordon, who received a special plaque from NASCAR during the victory ceremony in front of the main grandstand. “Eighty-five, wow! That is un-un-believable. With the kind of day we had, the kind of year we’re having, I feel rejuvenated.”
He sure earned this win. Johnson put his No. 48 car in front of Gordon’s Chevrolet a couple of times but couldn’t hold on through the corners. At the end, with both drivers racing as hard as they could on fading tires, their cars came close to getting sideways several times.
Johnson made one last run for the lead on the final lap, but had to back off to keep from putting his car in the wall. Gordon pulled away to win by 0.598 seconds.
“I’m so glad I grew up racing on dirt,” Johnson said. “I could have spun out four or five times at the end.”
The defending champ isn’t going to give up his unprecedented title run without a fight. In fact, he moved past Kyle Busch to take the top spot in the season standings, so he’s still the one everyone’s chasing even with only one win this year.
“We’re having a terrible year,” Johnson quipped. “The reality is we have a lot to be proud of. … We know we have a very good chance of winning the championship.”
Tony Stewart was feeling a lot better about his chances after making up more than 8 seconds on the leaders in the final laps to finish third. He solidified his hold on 10th place — the final spot in the Chase that will be determined on points — going to Richmond.
“The points are big going into next week, that’s for sure,” Stewart said. “I’m proud of the effort everybody gave this week. It may come down to one point. Having the strong finish we had here, maybe that will be the difference in making it or not making it next week.”
Six drivers had already clinched a spot in the 12-driver playoff, and three more joined them Tuesday. Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman are locked in on points, and Brad Keselowski wrapped up at least a wild card with his sixth-place finish.
This was only the second Cup race since 1978 to be run on a Tuesday. It was originally scheduled for Sunday night, but rain from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee forced a two-day postponement.
The drivers had to cope with much different conditions than they faced in qualifying 2½ days earlier. Then, it was sunny and humid with temperatures in the lows 90s. When the green flag finally waved for the race, it was windy, overcast and felt downright fall-like at 63 degrees.
Two more rain delays Tuesday forced the drivers to improvise on the fly, looking for the line that worked best at more than 180 mph in the ever-changing conditions.
But Gordon clearly had the best car on the 1.54-mile trioval, leading 146 of the 325 laps. Matt Kenseth was next, out front for 64 laps, and Johnson led just 29 laps after struggling early in the day and nearly going a lap down.
Stewart was followed across the line by Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards. Denny Hamlin finished eighth, moved up one spot to 12th in the season standings, and has a firmer grip on the second wild card. The last two spots in the Chase will go to the drivers ranking 11th to 20th in the points with the most wins. Hamlin has one of those precious victories.
Clint Bowyer went the wrong way in the Chase, the victim of a run-in with Juan Pablo Montoya. The No. 33 car clashed with Montoya coming off turn four, sending Bowyer slamming into the wall. He got his battered car back on the track for the final laps, trying to pick up an extra point or two, but finished 36th.
Bowyer, who gave a sarcastic wave to Montoya as he passed the wrecked machine under caution, dropped to 14th in the points — a dozen behind Hamlin — and will need to win at Richmond to make the Chase.
“Everybody knows what they’re up against when the 42 (Montoya) comes up,” Bowyer said bitterly. “He bullies his way up there and, before you know it, he’s in the way and wrecking somebody. It’s just a shame. We’re racing for a spot in the Chase and he’s racing for nothing.”
No one claimed the $3 million prize for the Sprint Summer Showdown, which paired five fans with the winners of designated races at Indianapolis, Pocono, Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol. Keselowski won a pair of those races and represented two fans, and the other eligible drivers were Kyle Busch, Paul Menard and Marcos Ambrose.
Menard was 18th, Ambrose 21st, and Busch faded to 23rd after leading three times for a total of 19 laps early on.
Pole winner Kasey Kahne also had a tough day, smashing into another car on a restart and settling for a 34th-place finish that severely damaged his long-shot Chase hopes.
The threatening skies brought more rain just past the midway point. At first, the cars stayed on the track under yellow while the drying machines were sent out. But the light mist began to come down a little harder, so NASCAR waved the red flag. The cars went to pit road and were covered to wait out the showers.
J.J. Yeley, driving for an underfunded team, decided not to pit when the yellow flag came out, hoping to steal a win if the rain didn’t let up. But the showers barely showed up on radar, so he knew there was little chance of not going the distance.
He was right. The delay lasted only 24 minutes.
When the race resumed, Kenseth surged to the lead. But it began drizzling again after only two laps and Kenseth screamed into his radio “I almost wrecked!” — just before NASCAR waved the yellow flag again. The cars continued for 10 laps under caution, the rain stopped and the fleet of drying trucks got the track in shape to go back racing.
And, boy, what a race it was at the end.