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Jeff Gordon! Dominating...and then holding off hard-charging teammate Jimmie Johnson to win the soggy Atlanta 500

   Victory No. three of the season for Jeff Gordon, and historic victory No. 85 of his career (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern



   It was oh so ironic, and yet quite apropos:
   At this very track, on a cold, rainy weekend back in 1992, Jeff Gordon made his NASCAR Winston Cup debut, on the weekend that legendary Richard Petty ran his last big race.
   Now, nearly 19 years later, Gordon just logged milestone career win No. 85, in certainly one of his finest runs of the season, at Atlanta Motor Speedway....and put himself firmly into NASCAR championship contention with a very strong performance Tuesday to win the long-rain-delayed Atlanta 500.

   And the man Gordon had to beat in the final miles, in an amazing stretch battle, was teammate Jimmie Johnson, the very man he brought into this division in late 2001…and the very man he will likely have to beat to win that long-awaited fifth NASCAR Cup championship.
   "I'm just blown away by the kind of day we had, by the kind of year we've had. I feel rejuvenated," a jubilant Gordon, just turned 40, said.
   But missing the big game was Gordon's daughter Ella, who was making some of history of her own Tuesday…with her first day at school.

   Atlanta's pit road was jamming during the Tuesday race, which was quite spirited from start to finish. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Gordon has won four Cup championship, but his last title came 10 years ago, in 2001. This spring, with new crew chief Alan Gustafson, Gordon kicked strong out of the gate, winning at Phoenix in February. But the rest of the spring and much of the early summer Gordon didn't really do that well, or run that consistently. Over the year's first 12 races he averaged only 18th-place finishes.
   However over the last 12, beginning in June at Kansas City, Gordon has averaged a very hot 6.75.
   Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman and Brad Keselowski all locked themselves into the playoffs Tuesday, joining Kyle Busch, Johnson, Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards, with only the Richmond regular season finale ahead, Saturday night.   "We took a bad day and make a good day out of it, so it's a big confidence booster," Keselowski said, after clinching one of the 12 playoff spots.
   That means nine men in the Sprint Cup standings have clinched playoff spots. Two still on the hot seat are Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Stewart made a strong run late Tuesday; but Earnhardt was lapped early and faded.
   Only two men – Petty and David Pearson – have won more NASCAR Cup events than Gordon. And Gordon this season certainly hasn't been struggling to No. 85 – he's had fast cars and he's got three wins this year, and several near misses too.
   But for Gordon that big bit of history was almost lost on him, given the thrill of the Tuesday finish, and the momentum Gordon appears to be carrying now into the playoffs, which open Sept. 18th in Chicago.

    The two best down the stretch: Jeff Gordon on the outside, teammate Jimmie Johnson on the inside (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   This race was scheduled for a 7:30 p.m. ET, but a tropical storm washed out Sunday and then Monday too. It finally got underway just after 11 a.m. Tuesday. However a misty rain dogged drivers Tuesday too, at one point forcing NASCAR to call a 25-minute red flag to dry the track.
   Gordon dominated the 4-1/2-hour race right from the start. "But the track really changed a lot after that rain delay," Gordon said.
   Late in the day it appears that Jack Roush teammates Kenseth and Edwards would be battling each other for the win, instead of the two Rick Hendrick teammates.
   But Gordon caught his second wind, and Johnson began one of his late-race charges, and in the last 30 miles, after the final round of pit stops, it was all Gordon-versus-Johnson.
   "That was a lot of fun racing with him. I was slipping, he was slipping. And a couple of times I thought he had me," Gordon said.
   "All he had to do was get to the inside of me off turn two and it would have been hard for me to beat him back to the line. He had one or two shots at me that I thought we were done. But we kept fighting him till the checkered flag.
    "This team is on a roll….and I don't care if it's Sunday or Monday or Tuesday…"

   The hottest quotes of the day came from Clint Bowyer, who got effectively bounced out the playoffs after his run-in with Juan Pablo Montoya:
  "You can't race around the jackass. 
   "Anybody in this sport knows what you're up against when Montoya comes up.
    "He dive-bombs the starts, and bullies his way up in there, and, before you know it, he's in the way and wrecking with somebody. Unfortunately I was the victim this week.
    "It's just a shame. We're out here racing for a spot in the chase; he's out here racing for nothing.
    "I'm tired of it. Everybody in the garage area fights him. He's just an idiot.
    "He races everybody that way. You can't race that way in this sport, plain and simple…and I'll call him out for it.
    "He is like a pinball out there, because he is a bully.
    "There has to be some give-and-take."

    After the final round of pit stops, Gordon looked in control and felt comfortable: "We pulled away from him…the car was driving perfect.
    "Then all of a sudden, with about 15 to go, it started to really loosen up. 
    "I was hoping to see him loosening up as well. But if he was, he wasn't showing it, because he was coming hard. 
    "And I made a few mistakes trying to search around. I finally just when back to what I was doing -- I had to get to the bottom in turns three and four, and the top in one and two.
    "But he was a little better than me in one and two, and he had a couple runs at me.
    "When he got under me and didn't complete the pass, that's what allowed me to go 'Okay, we still are going to win this race.  I just can't make mistakes.'
    "Then he got real loose off four coming to take the white, and I think that was the turning point. Had he gotten under me off two -- I was getting so loose over there -- and if he could have got to the bottom into turn three, I don't know if I could have held him off off four.
    "But he got real loose off two. That gave me breathing room, to where I could go down to three and not push the issue."


    Jeff Gordon at the line, concluding a cloudy, stormy, rainy, extra-long weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, a race weekend that stretched into late Tuesday (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Hey Mike, Love your piece on

Hey Mike,
Love your piece on the race and its made for good and entertaining reading. I have to say one thing, if I ever miss the race one day, I will just have to read your article and will be like I did not miss the race at all. Thank you for taking the time to write. Looking forward to the next week's piece.


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