|03/29/12 09:41AM||Jeff Gordon, NASCAR, Rusty Wallace, Sprint Cup|
Wallace's 55th win comes at Gordon's expense
Race leader sidelined by loose concrete; winner capitalizes on late pit stop
By Mark Aumann, NASCAR.COM
March 29, 2012 10:30 AM, EDT
The news that Rusty Wallace may be getting back behind the wheel of a stock car this summer for an American Speed Association event at Milwaukee stirs up memories of his last Cup victory, which came in the 2004 Advance Auto Parts 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
And the way Jeff Gordon's season has gone so far in 2012, perhaps the pothole incident that wrecked his chances of winning that race -- and caused a delay of more than an hour -- would fit in perfectly with the string of bad luck that seems to have plagued the No. 24 Chevrolet.
Once I got in the lead, I just talked to myself. 'Get smooth. Hit your marks. Don't screw up. Don't give this thing away.'
-- RUSTY WALLACE
After sweeping both Martinsville races in 2003, Gordon had no reason to think he wouldn't make it three in a row when the series returned to the paperclip-shaped bullring in southern Virginia that spring. And winning the pole only cemented him as the odds-on favorite in the race.
Unfortunately, concrete -- or at least a big chunk of it -- would lead to Gordon's eventual downfall.
Gordon led 180 of the race's first 272 laps and was running second behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. when the track began to break apart in Turn 3. Unfortunately, Gordon learned about the debris moments before NASCAR officials did -- on Lap 285 his car ran over a large piece of concrete that had been dislodged from the 18-inch long hole in the track.
NASCAR immediately put out the caution and shortly thereafter stopped the field on the backstretch to survey the situation, but it was a case of too little, too late for Gordon. His car suffered major damage to its right front fender. And after it took 77 minutes to repair the track surface with a fast-drying epoxy, Gordon underwent repairs of his own with a series of pit stops under caution.
He restarted 21st and, to his credit, made it back to seventh at the finish.
"It was unfortunate the race track came apart," Gordon said afterwards. "I hear they are going to repave it. I guess we were just one race early.
"It definitely took away any chance we had of winning, but I guess that is part of it. The car wasn't quite the same."
Junior held the lead for 137 consecutive laps but an accident involving Scott Wimmer with 85 laps remaining created a quandary for the front-running cars: Pit and lose track position or stay out on worn tires?
When the pits were opened and the field came through Turn 4, Jimmie Johnson feinted towards the pit entrance and then swerved back behind the pace car. But crew chief Chad Knaus' gamble backfired when every other car on the lead lap pitted.
"We really thought that some more were going to stay out," Johnson said. "I looked in the mirror and saw them coming but we were having a discussion on the radio and felt like it would be best to stay out."
Knaus realized immediately that Johnson was, in his words, "a sitting duck." And even though Johnson gamely fended off Ryan Newman for several laps, he eventually had nothing for Wallace, who worked his way past Newman for second on Lap 245 and passed Johnson for the lead 10 laps later.
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Wallace then survived a late-race challenge from Bobby Labonte to end a 105-race winless streak.
"Once I got in the lead, I just talked to myself," Wallace said. "'Get smooth. Hit your marks. Don't screw up. Don't give this thing away.'
"It's been so long and we've been so close. The fans have been behind me for so long, and this one is for them."
During the three years since his last win, Wallace had questioned many things, but not his determination. And team owner Roger Penske never lost faith in Wallace's ability.
So despite a number of near-misses, Wallace always believed he'd get win No. 55, moving him past Lee Petty on NASCAR's all-time victory list.
"I got really sick of hearing, 'Why aren't you winning?' but it made me look at the pit crew, myself, my driving style. It made me look at a lot of things," Wallace said.
"I felt like I was driving as hard as I could, and I thought if we could get this right or that right we'd get back in Victory Lane, but you know I'm not a quitter. I've never quit. If anything, I just keep moving things around to complement what I've got to have."
Wallace's win was the first for Dodge at Martinsville since Dave Marcis' victory in 1974. Since then, Chevrolet and Toyota have combined for 15 consecutive victories -- including two by Gordon and six for Johnson.
And Martinsville officials made good on their promise to repave the surface before the fall race.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.