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Jeff Gordon: Tying Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip on NASCAR's All-time win list

  Jeff Gordon, emotional in victory, at many levels (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   POCONO, Pa.
   It was a surprisingly emotional – and quite upbeat – Jeff Gordon celebrating an historic victory here Sunday, his 84th since joining the NASCAR tour 20-some years ago, tying him with Hall of Famers Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip on stock car racing's all-time list.
   But Gordon, though turning 40 this season, insists he's not ready for the rocking chair or wheelchair just yet, that he's got a lot more wins in him.

   Indeed, runner-up Kurt Busch, who had the best car down the stretch after Denny Hamlin's flat tire knocked him out of contention, was a bit rueful in his praise of the winner of the Pocono 500: "The old boy Jeff Gordon had it in him today.  We ran him strong, we ran him hard."
    The afternoon was warm but cloudy, with threatening rain, typical of this mountain track. Despite predictions that being allowed to shift again here would create more excitement, the day was surprisingly calm and quiet.
   "There weren't a lot of cautions, so you had to have the car right," Gordon said. "Luckily we had it pretty close."


Nice Sunday crowd at Pocono Raceway, but could have been bigger for Jeff Gordon's win (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   For Gordon it wasn't so much about yet another win but about a win coming as he prepares to hit 40, with a career on the far side of the mountain, and with him running rather inconsistently lately.
   "When we don't win, I get down….and everybody does in this sport  -- and you start to question everything," Gordon said.
   "When our teammates are outrunning us, then you have to look at that as well.
   "You've got to go out there and show it. The people the media talk about, the fans look at, the garage area looks at as a threat to win, are the people that are doing it on a consistent basis.
   "When we were doing that, people looked at us.  They were scared of us.  They thought 'Don't ever count them out.'"
    But too many times lately Gordon has not been that threat.
    This season team owner Rick Hendrick has paired him with crew chief Alan Gustafson, after several seasons working with Steve Letarte. And when Gordon and Gustafson won at Phoenix in February things looked good.
   But then….
   "Truthfully, me and the 24 car -- because I look at Alan's group as a little bit different, because it's new -- we just have not put the numbers together," Gordon said.  "So I don't expect anybody to look at us as a real threat.
    "The thing that was probably the most disappointing to me -- we came into the season talking about the stuff we were going to do, and we went to Phoenix and did it, and we were like 'Oh, yeah! We're going to get them.'
    "Then it kind of fell off the cliff for us. 
    "Days like today to me give us that confidence and momentum, and show the competition that they might need to start worrying about us again. 
    "But we've got to do that consistently to show that. 
     "That's why people fear Jimmie Johnson. That's why people fear Carl Edwards. Because they're doing it week in and week out."
    Once Gordon got the lead late Sunday it looked like Kurt Busch would probably run him down.
   But Busch couldn't close the gap.
   "We got real loose that last run, and Kurt was coming," Gordon said. "When he was out front, I could hang with him; but he was good on the long runs.
    "At the end I knew we had to pull away early, and we did.
    "But then he started creeping back in there on me, and I got a little worried,  I made a few mistakes."
    But Gordon rallied to pull away to win by 10 lengths.
   Hamlin, who has dominated this huge 2-1/2-mile track the past few years, again dominated Sunday. But that flat left-rear….
   "….just nothing really went right," Hamlin said slowly. "We struggled a little bit on pit road.  We gave up about 10 seconds the first green flag stop to Juan Pablo Montoya -- and he short-pitted, so that made it look even worse. 
    "We were just a little bit off on sequence.  And those guys would gain a lot while we were out there on older tires.
    "We were still in contention. But then when we left pit road and had a flat tire…that is just not your day. It sheared the tire and wrapped it around the housing and broke the brakes lines, so I had no brakes."

   With Hamlin stuck deep in the pack, and with clean air so critical at these 200-mph corner speeds, the focus went to Kurt Busch.
   But then Gordon turned the tables with a better pit stop late, to get track position. And Gordon was untouchable in the closing miles of the four-hour race.
      "We were in a back-up car (after damaging his primary Friday), so we didn't know what to expect," Busch said. "But we ran it as hard as we could.  I shifted every lap…I overworked it…but it made it through the 500 miles."
    And some of the sport's top guys, like tour leader Carl Edwards, couldn't say that.
   Busch's crew chief, Steve Addington, took the blame for the runner-up finish. "I think we had a car that could have won the race.  I messed up on the call on that last pit stop --  I didn't want Jeff Gordon's team hear me tell the spotter we wanted Kurt on pit road 'this lap.' But it jumbled everything up, and we ended up making the stop the same lap as Jeff.  If we had stopped a lap earlier and gotten out in front of him, we would have won the race.
    "But I want everybody to know how far this team came from Friday. We led laps and ran up front all day long…no farther back than fourth."
   Younger brother Kyle Busch, who has been the center of controversy lately, but who has borne up well under it, and not hidden from the media, did a yeoman's job in finishing third, having to come from deep in the pack.
   However after the race NASCAR officials put a damper on his run, announcing his left-front quarterpanel was lower than allowed. Any penalties will likely come Tuesday. What NASCAR might do is anybody's guess, but one recent violation was Clint Bowyer's last fall at Loudon, N.H., in which NASCAR assessed at $150,000 fine, deducted 150 points, and suspended his crew chief for six races….an exceedingly harsh penalty.
   Busch himself has been on probation since Darlington, and this was his final race. But the problem with Busch's car here would likely not have any bearing on that probation.
   Busch left the track before the NASCAR announcement. Before he left, Busch talked about his day. And Busch talked about teamwork being key to his success here; teammate Hamlin runs this track very well, while Busch has struggled.
   "Can't say enough about Dave Rogers (his own crew chief) talking to Denny Hamlin's guys and really sitting down with Mike Ford (Hamlin's crew chief) and trying to figure out what we needed and what direction we needed to go," Busch said. 
   Early in the race Kevin Harvick, who has been on probation too for that Darlington incident, appeared to be making it tough on Busch.
   What was that all about?    
    "I'm not really sure, to be honest with you," Busch said. "I was running my own race; it was another car I had to pass. 
    "But) it seemed like he was trying to make it awfully difficult on me.  There were a couple times where I just had to back off and wait….
    "Maybe it shows his character and who he is, how he feels he needs to race. 
     "But it's not my fight….(though) he's trying to turn it into one."


      Jeff Gordon on a pit stop. With few cautions, pit crews had to be sharp Sunday at Pocono (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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