SONOMA, Calif. -- Jeff Gordon was feeling the cumulative effects of the flu, allergies and laryngitis. Then, at the last minute, he got just the boost he needed to win his fourth consecutive road course race.
A crash between Ricky Rudd and Ward Burton on the final laps brought out a red flag, allowing Gordon a sip of water and enough composure to hold off Mark Martin and win the Save Mart/Kragen 350 at Sears Point Raceway for the second straight year.
"We didn't think we could finish today, let alone win it," Gordon said.
Gordon beat Martin by .197 seconds for his fourth straight road course victory in a string dating to 1997 at Watkins Glen, N.Y. He now has four career road course victories, matching Martin.
Gordon, the defending Winston Cup champion, also earned his fourth victory of the season and broke a chain of three straight second place finishes.
Starting from the pole in his No. 24 Chevrolet, Gordon led 80 of 112 laps on the 10-turn, 1.949-mile road course nestled in Northern California's wine country.
The race was marred by seven cautions, but the final laps were especially messy.
Bobby Labonte, running in sixth place, hit a tire barrier on lap 103 and knocked around Joe Nemechek, bringing out a full-course caution. Just after the restart, Rudd ran off the course and crashed into Burton.
A red flag came out to clear the track and finish the race under a green flag. It was the first red flag since rain stopped the TranSouth Financial 400 at Darlington five races into the season.
After the race resumed about 20 minutes later, Martin was unable to overtake Gordon on the final three laps. The Vallejo, Calif. native became the first back-to-back winner at Sears Point.
"That red flag didn't hurt at all," Gordon said. "The tires kind of went away there at the end for everybody, but I was able to get refreshed and make a good effort those last three laps."
While Gordon admitted that all the cautions helped him, Martin felt otherwise.
"They crippled us a little bit because I thought it was better the longer we ran," Martin said. "(But) they were there, it was reality and you have to deal with it."
John Andretti, who started in the 31st position, finished third in a Pontiac, followed by Rusty Wallace and Jimmy Spencer, both in Fords. Rudd, who was running fourth at the time of the accident and finished 38th, had not finished in the top 10 this season.
Martin, who won here two years ago and finished sixth last year, started in the ninth position but quickly moved up to challenge Gordon on the 18th lap. He overtook Gordon on the 26th lap, beating him out of the pits during a caution.
Steve Park, driver of the Pennzoil Chevrolet, had gone out of control on the second turn and flipped a full revolution in midair before coming to rest on a retaining wall. Park appeared fine, saluting the fans as he emerged from the car.
Gordon re-took the lead from Martin on the 31st lap and held on to it until the 51st lap, when he ran off the track on the seventh turn. The mistake put Gordon in third behind Martin and Jeff Burton.
Burton overtook Martin on the 69th lap, for the first lead he has ever held on a road course. But it was short-lived: Burton slowed two laps later and reported transmission problems.
Spencer took the lead briefly during a caution for debris on the track, but once the course was clear Gordon passed Martin and Spencer to regain the lead with 33 laps to go.
Martin, whose only win this season came at Rockingham, kept his No. 6 Ford on Gordon's tail the rest of the way. On the final lap, Martin tried valiantly to pass Gordon, but couldn't manage it.
Gordon was replenished with water on every pit stop, and at one point there was word he might use an alternate driver to finish the race.
But Gordon said he never considered handing over the wheel.
"I knew once I cooled down and got some bottled water, I could wrap it up," he said. "I wanted to get it done and finish the race."
It was Gordon's 46th career victory. He earned $125,040.
Wallace, who has won at Sears Point twice, was using a new car and vying for his 50th career win. Last year, he failed to qualify in the first round but came back to finish fifth.
"I really didn't need those cautions because we were right on Mark's tail. I had my rhythm going and I was staying right there and everything was going good," Wallace said. "Then the caution flag came and everything went bad. I wheel hopped the thing on the last corner and I lost third to Andretti and went to fourth."
Track officials this year changed the so-called "Chute" an 890-foot high-speed bypass connecting turns four and seven. The Chute, used exclusively for NASCAR events, now empties into a hard-breaking exit turn.
© 2018. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us