NASCAR takes a rare weekend off over Easter, its drivers and teams enjoying a short pause in the 36-race Sprint Cup championship. After seven rounds, four-time champion Jeff Gordon leads the series with 1154 points, 162 more than his Hendrick Motorsports team-mate Jimmie Johnson. At the fearsome Texas Motor Speedway last weekend, Gordon and Johnson emphasised their growing dominance of this season by finishing a rousing one-two. More important perhaps was the fact that Gordon won the race, bringing an end to a 47-race winless streak, the longest of his career.
Gordon, 37, has been racing Cup cars for 17 years and has now won 82 races. One more victory and he will tie with Cale Yarborough for fifth place on NASCAR’s all-time winners’ list. Two more wins and Gordon will move into an existing tie with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for third place, behind only Richard Petty and David Pearson. Gordon won the last of his four titles in 2001 and was second to Johnson in ’07, but last year he finished a disappointed seventh in the points and failed to win a race for the first time in 16 years.
So it was a pleasure for Gordon to break his drought at Texas. It is one of only two NASCAR tracks (Homestead-Miami is the other) where Jeff had not won and it’s also a track he disliked, until last weekend at least. “What made winning at Texas so important was that was a track where we were weak,” said Gordon. “It’s a very different track the way the banking falls off the corners and it’s a place I’ve struggled to get a good feel for. We weren’t that good last weekend either, but the team worked away at it and the car was great on Sunday.”
In the end Gordon was helped by his pit crew, who ran a superb stop and enabled him to lead the field for the final restart. He drove home to win the 500-mile race by half a second from Johnson, who struggled in the early stages but came on strong at the finish.
“I saw Jimmie was third on the restart and you just never count those guys out,” said Gordon. “That’s the sign of a great team, a championship-calibre team. Jimmie is an aggressive driver and I saw him battling with [Tony] Stewart. My car was so good on the restarts no matter who was behind me, whether it was Stewart or [Carl] Edwards or Jimmie. Our real shot at it was to go as hard as I could.
“I knew we had 25 or 26 laps to go, and then with about 10 or 12 laps to go I felt my car starting to give up. I saw Jimmie in my mirror making [up] a bit of a ground and I got a little nervous. But I was able to put five or six really good laps together where I didn’t make any mistakes and keep a pretty decent gap, so that the lapped cars didn’t affect us too much.”
Crew chief Steve Letarte has been lambasted by many of Gordon’s fans for their hero’s failure to win over the last year and a half, so he was as delighted as his driver. “It’s huge, especially at a place you’ve never won at,” said Letarte. “It’s a gigantic relief. That place has really been an Achilles Heel for us. Jeff struggles to get the feeling there and we have very little confidence to put a set-up on the car that we believe is fast. So you kind of spiral and bounce off one another.
“But the whole weekend went real well. We weren’t that good on Saturday, but the guys worked really hard, the engineers put their heads together and we made some good changes for Sunday. Jeff drove a great race and the pit crew really came through at the end and gave us track position. It’s a great relief to win like we did with a fast race car and to put in a real team effort.”
NASCAR’s Sprint Cup resumes with a Saturday night race on April 18 at the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway oval.