Man of the people
Gordon endures cautions, Junior fans to win Aaron's
Posted: Monday April 30, 2007 1:10AM; Updated: Monday April 30, 2007 2:46AM
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- April showers. They're an annual event at Talladega: Jeff Gordon takes the checkered flag, and immediately, hundreds of fans dressed in Earnhardt-red rain beer cans down onto the track.
Gordon's win Sunday in the Aaron's 499 (his second straight, after Phoenix last week) drew the customary brew deluge, even though officials had warned fans during pre-race ceremonies that anyone throwing anything onto the track would face arrest -- and even though favorite son Dale Earnhardt Jr. had implored his supporters to throw toilet paper instead. But for the 'Dega faithful, Gordon's latest victory was clearly a provocation that could not be ignored. Not only had he taken the checkered flag under a caution, denying them any chance of a thrilling finish, and beaten out Junior, who for a brief moment late in the race looked like a potential winner; but Gordon had also moved past Dale Earnhardt, Sr. into sixth place on NASCAR's all-time win list with his 77th career Cup victory -- on what would have been Big E's 56th birthday. Jeff, this Bud's for you!
"I appreciate the enthusiasm," Gordon said gamely after making it to safety.
That's one word for Talladega's fan participation. Some others come to mind as well. Two years ago, after Gordon won the spring race (also under caution), I was privileged to witness one particularly "enthusiastic" mother and father in the grandstands along the front stretch proudly taking a photo of their preschool-aged son, who was clad from head to little feet in Earnhardt regalia, as he extended both hands, middle fingers raised, toward the track, where Gordon was rolling toward Victory Lane. Maybe the tyke had already heaved his juice box over the fence. Ah, well. What is a sport without its traditions?
It hardly seemed as though Gordon, who started on Sunday's pole, dominated in the race, yet when it was all over, he had led 10 times for a race-high 71 laps and shown the ability to move through the field when he needed. Not to stir up any more beer tossing, but it's sure looking like four-time Cup champ Gordon's "Drive for Five" is in high gear.
In a race curiously devoid of sustained drama, Gordon's timing was impeccable. On Lap 186, Gordon, who had been back in 14th place on a restart just seven laps earlier, passed Jamie McMurray for the lead just before David Reutimann's blown engine brought out the caution. That put the No. 24 car at the head of the field for the green-white-checker finish that turned into a yellow finish.
It's not often you see the Hendrick boys get their signals crossed, but on Lap 126, Casey Mears, running just in front of teammate Jimmie Johnson, attempted to make a green-flag pit stop. Believing the Hendrick cars would be pitting together, Mears slowed in front of Johnson, who accidentally tapped him from behind, sending Mears into a wild slide that ended with a hard lick against the wall. "I'm so sorry I dumped those guys" said Johnson. "It was a major miscommunication."
What was really surprising was to realize what a surprise it was to see the No. 9 car out front. Kasey Kahne, a six-time winner in 2006, had been pretty much relegated to the background this season. But at Talladega, he led twice, for a total of five laps -- his first laps led since the Las Vegas race on March 11. For Kahne, who went on to finish 12th and climbed two spots to 31st in the points, it was a welcome sign that a brutal season might be turning around.
Was it really a surprise the beneficiary of the first debris caution was Tony Stewart, who got back on the lead lap after a speeding penalty when NASCAR officials threw the yellow on Lap 74?
Eighty-three career Cup victories for Cale Yarborough, who's fifth on NASCAR's all-time win list.
Kyle Busch's sprightly emergence from his one-man Big One in Saturday's Busch Series race (coming off Turn 4 on Lap 27, Busch appeared to get a tap from behind from Tony Stewart, veered into the wall, flipped over, slid a few hundred feet on his roof and then went into a flaming barrel roll through the infield grass but came out with his soul patch barely ruffled) was eloquent testimony to the almost incredible safety of today's race cars and tracks.
When you see a driver come through a wreck of that magnitude unscathed (as well as Kyle's Sunday slam into the inside wall), it's easy to be lulled into a false sense of security. But the physics involved in 3,400-pound cars traveling at 190 mph are for real. Fans (not to mention drivers) should give thanks each day for NASCAR's safety innovations.