Originally created 02/22/99

Martin wins; Gordon's engine fails



ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- Every time that Mark Martin could breath a little easier after making a good restart, the yellow flag would wave once more.

Martin was forced to keep perennial North Carolina Speedway runner-up Dale Jarrett at bay on three restarts in the final 32 laps Sunday in the Dura-Lube/Big Kmart 400.

"There's all kinds of things that can go wrong on restarts," Martin said. "Believe me, I've lost a lot more races than I've won, and there's all kind of ways to lose them.

"To me, every restart was just another opportunity to have something go wrong. ... But we had the car to pull it off there at the end."

The last of six yellow flags in Sunday's race came out on lap 379, when Ernie Irvan slammed into the wall between turns three and four on the 1.017-mile oval.

Jarrett, second in six of the last seven races at Rockingham, tried hard to stay with Martin on the restart on lap 395. But Martin pulled steadily away, and Jarrett barely fought off Bobby Labonte in the final laps to retain second.

Martin eventually pulled away to win by 1.397-seconds -- about 12 car-lengths -- in the battle of Ford Tauruses.

Besides Martin's 30th career victory, the race was significant because of a rare failure by two-time defending Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon, whose engine blew, relegating him to 39th place in the 43-car field.

After Gordon's engine blew with a big puff of black smoke on the 311th of 393 laps, the battle fell to Martin, Jarrett, Jeff Burton and Labonte.

Martin, a distant runner-up to Gordon in last year's points race, took control after his Roush Racing crew moved him from second to first during a yellow-flag pit stop on lap 357.

"We adjusted on the car all day, and got better and better and better," Martin said. "They put me in the lead with four new tires, with a fast setup and, heck, that was what we needed."

Martin, whose first career victory came on this track in October 1989 -- his only other Rockingham win -- earned $104,635. He averaged 120.750 mph.

Jarrett said his best shot at Martin came the green flag waved the final time on lap 385.

"That was going to be my one shot if I could do something on the restart," Jarrett said. "I tried to get a really good run on him, but Mark got to the corner before I did, so that was kind of it after that.

"It seems like we have second place down pat. We just can't get to victory lane here."

Burton, Martin's teammate, led eight times for a race-high 227 laps. But he fell from first to third on the same pit sequence when Martin took the lead. Burton wound up fourth, followed by Jeremy Mayfield.

"We lost our track position, and that hurt us some," Burton said. "We've got to get a little better on me making the calls on what to do with the chassis. We were tighter at the end than we had been all day."

Martin felt fortunate to beat him.

"I kind of hate it for Jeff Burton," he said. "He was strong all day; stronger than we were."

But Martin, who led five times for 50 laps, including the final 36, got his car right when it counted the most -- at the end.

"This crew won the race for me," he said. "It was right on the money at the end.

"I just let it rip at the end, and the rest of the day I just tried to be conservative, to make sure we didn't fool around and stop short for tires or something like that."

Gordon, who had won the last two races of 1998 and the season-opening Daytona 500, also lost the points lead along with his winning streak. Mike Skinner, fourth in Daytona and sixth at The Rock, holds a 29-point lead over 10th-place Rusty Wallace.

Gordon, who last failed to finish a race in June when he crashed in Richmond, wound up 39th on Sunday and fell to 11th -- trailing Skinner by 84 points after two of 34 races. Martin, caught up in a crash in Daytona, moved to eighth in the standings, 65 points behind.

"The thing just let go," said Gordon, who led as late a lap 283 and was fifth when his engine blew. "Today pretty much shows it doesn't matter what you do in Daytona. You've got to do it every weekend."

The first half of the race was run without a caution flag, allowing the field to stretch out. Only 11 cars were on the lead lap by halfway, with Martin, Burton, Gordon and Labonte taking turns in the lead.

Irvan spun into the wall coming off turn two on lap 209, and Ted Musgrave slid into the inside barrier after swerving to avoid Irvan's car. That brought out the first caution and tightened up the lead pack.

By the end, there were 40 caution laps.