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Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth tangle at the finish, and Jeff Gordon wins a rain-soaked Pennsylvania 400, ended abruptly by thunderstorm

Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth tangle at the finish, and Jeff Gordon wins a rain-soaked Pennsylvania 400, ended abruptly by thunderstorm

Jeff Gordon douses crew chief Alan Gustafson after surprise win that may put him in the championship playoffs


   By Mike Mulhern

   POCONO, Pa.
   Hard luck Jeff Gordon was all but toast most of the afternoon, in his bid to make the NASCAR title chase. But his luck changed dramatically in the final seconds of Sunday's Pennsylvania 400.
   Jimmie Johnson again had the car to beat, dominating the rain-delayed and eventually rain-shortened race. But on the final restart, with heavy lightning-filled thunderstorms at the very edge of Pocono Raceway, Johnson, the leader, and second-place runner Matt Kenseth collided, triggering a race-ending melee.
   And Gordon finally got some good luck -- he was the new leader at the ensuing yellow, and thus the winner when the race was called because of a raging thunderstorm.
    Ten fans were hit by lightning in two separate strikes, in the grandstand parking lot and in the infield, at the end of the race. All were taken to area hospitals. One was killed, one was in critical condition.
    That Gordon was the leader at the yellow was not questioned. But many of the other finishing positions were at question, because when the first turn crash brought out the yellow, the official scoring is to be as the way the cars crossed the last embedded scoring loop...and those scoring loops are not marked.
    Several replays were inconclusive, with cars skidding and crashing wildly.
    The start of the race was delayed two hours for rain, but the track dried in just 90 minutes (during the recent multi-million-dollar repaving project extensive new drainage was installed).
   The 400-miler, scheduled for 160 laps, was cut short by the rain to just 98 laps...which would have been less than halfway under the long-standing 500-mile mark.
    The scoring issues -- Greg Biffle and crew chief Matt Puccia were vigorously arguing -- could play a role in who makes and doesn't make the championship chase in five weeks.
    Kenseth, until the crash, was set to regain the top spot in the Sprint Cup standings. Dale Earnhardt Jr., the tour leader at the start of the race, and a strong runner here, broke a transmission and wound up 32nd, which would have cost him the lead, until Kenseth's crash dropped him to 17th.
    Earnhardt thus remains atop the points.
    The top 10 in the points coming out of Richmond Sept. 8th will make the playoffs, and two wild cards -- the two wild cards right now are Kasey Kahne and Gordon.
    Two of the day's big losers were Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards. Busch broke a brake rotor, cut a tire and crashed early, which may cost him a shot in the playoffs. Edwards, who needs to win to make the playoffs, didn't, again.
     Denny Hamlin t-boned Kenseth hard in that incident, and Hamlin spent some time in the infield care center complaining of pain in his abdomen, before he was treated and released.
     Johnson, on the inside of the front row for the final restart, and Kenseth went down into turn one side by side. Kenseth appeared to briefly squeeze down on Johnson, to take the air off his rear spoiler and get him loose. As Kenseth moved back to the high side, Johnson's car got loose and he slid up into Kenseth, as cars scattered wildly behind them.
     Johnson managed to recover without hitting anything, but he was passed by several cars and finished 14th, NASCAR ruled.
      Ryan Newman and Gordon are both tied for the second wild card slot, but NASCAR's tie-breaker is then second-place finishes, third-place finishes, and so forth. Gordon's two fifth-place finishes trumped Newman's one fifth, to give him the spot, for the moment.


   The Pennsylvania 400 started under blue skies, with Denny Hamlin (11) and Juan Pablo Montoya on the front row (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

       Johnson said a flat right-rear tire on the restart triggered the race-ending crash.
   "When I was cooling my tires down through the tunnel coming to the green, something didn't feel right," Johnson said. "I kept trying to clean the tires off (by weaving), and it got a little better, so I just assumed I had trash on my tires.
     "When I got down into turn one I realized I had a right-rear flat.
     "Not much you can do with a right-rear flat."
     Kenseth said it all surprised him.
    "That last restart we took off and Brad Keselowski didn't get going, and I had a pretty good gap, so I crossed the line and was going to pull behind Jimmie (going toward turn one)," Kenseth said.
     "When I pulled down to go behind him I got a little draft and actually pulled up to his door, so I decided to race him through there.
    "We went off into one and I could hear his pipes. I wasn't sure he had lifted yet. He drove in really, really far, and spun out underneath me, and I got wrecked.
    "I don't think he had a flat, did he? I don't think so."
    Kenseth apparently wasn't concerned with any scoring issues, since he's all but locked into the chase and now only victories count, for seeding at the start of the playoffs.
     "I don't even know where we are scored," Kenseth said.
      As strong as Johnson had been, did Kenseth figure he had a shot at the win? At that point everyone was chasing the rain.
   "We knew it was going to rain... and we were about the same speed," Kenseth said. "They were really fast, and he had the best car. But on that restart I thought I could race him through one and maybe get a run off turn one, then maybe I could hold him off.
    "That was the plan -- to dig as hard as I could through there and try to race him off that corner.
      "He just drove in incredibly far and spun out.
       "Maybe he had a flat, but I am not so sure about that."
      So Kenseth's emotions about it? After all, wins won the championship for Tony Stewart last fall, and wins could again be the key.
      "I am not mad at him," Kenseth said. "It is just that you race for the win, and I thought I gave enough room down there.
      "He drove in hard because he is racing for the win too.
      "We are in a situation where we need to win some races too. (Johnson has three wins to Kenseth's one.)
      "You don't mind if something happens; it is just a bummer when it takes you out after you are running top-three all day and finish 22nd  
     "That is very disappointing, and it is hard to look at the bright spot in that."



   Matt Kenseth not happy with the finish, questions if Jimmie Johnson really had a flat tire (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
     Gordon, meanwhile, was all smiles. This win could turn his season around. He's had tons of bad luck this season, despite having a solid and very fast car all year.
     Since Michigan in June, though, Gordon has been clicking off solid finishes, top-six's in six of the last seven starts.    
     "The way our year has gone, we'll definitely take it like this," Gordon said almost gleefully.
     "Man, I've never seen the seas part quite like that. I got a great restart (sixth, in the outside lane) and was able to dive to the inside in front of Kasey. I saw Jimmie get sideways, and it just took them all out.
     "And I was like 'Wow!'"
     That brought out the yellow, of course. NASCAR then threw the red, to clean up the mess. Then NASCAR got ready for a restart, gave the one-to-go, but then waved off the restart. After a few more minutes, it began raining heavily, and NASCAR finally called it a day at 5 p.m. ET.
      During the 15 minutes or so where a restart was possible, Gordon was wondering what to do if the green came out again. "I didn't want to have the same thing happen to us," he said.
    "And it started raining, I tell you what -- with all the things that have gone wrong for us this year, I'm hoping that this is the one that makes up for it all."

    Nice crowd for the season's second Pocono race, estimated by NASCAR at 85,000 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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