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Rookie deflects Gordon's limelight

Johnson becomes the only first-year driver to lead the points standings, and overshadows his teammate's victory.

©Associated Press
September 30, 2002

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- The immediate moment belongs to Jeff Gordon. The historic moment belongs to his rookie teammate, Jimmie Johnson.

Gordon shook off his recent slump and revived his bid for a fifth Winston Cup title Sunday, pulling away from a late red-flag restart to win a crash-filled Protection One 400.

Johnson's 10th-place finish, meanwhile, made him the first rookie to lead the points standings.

"I was wondering why everybody was standing around," Johnson said. "There's more people over here, probably, than there are in Victory Lane with Jeff."

Johnson came in trailing Mark Martin by 30 points, but leads the veteran by 11 after Martin lost his engine with 17 laps to go and finished 25th.

"How am I supposed to advise a guy who's been wearing me out all season?" Gordon said. "There are people who've got it and people who don't, and he's got it."

But Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, cautioned against getting too excited about the lead.

"It doesn't matter to us," Knaus said. "We're going out there and we're trying to win the races. We're not worried about leading the points. That's the story that everybody else is talking about."

Gordon, who also won last year's inaugural Winston Cup event at Kansas Speedway, snapped a three-week string in which he finished 40th, 14th and 37th after back-to-back wins in the races before that.

"I kind of put my foot in my mouth last week and said we had to win," Gordon said. "Luckily, I was able to back that up."

Gordon led the last 57 laps and 116 overall in the 267-lap, 400-mile race and appeared headed for an easy victory until Johnny Benson, Jeremy Mayfield, Jimmy Spencer and Ricky Rudd spun out in the fourth turn with five laps left. The rest of the field parked in the second turn for more than 13 minutes -- in 92 degree heat -- before starting up again.

"I knew they were going to throw the red flag, but I didn't realize how hot it was over there," Gordon said. "I'm completely exhausted."

Gordon held off rookie Ryan Newman's Ford on the restart with three laps to go. Rusty Wallace was third, Joe Nemechek fourth and Bill Elliott fifth.

Gordon laughed off a suggestion that by saying he had to do well in Kansas City, he had somehow willed himself to the win after three weeks of frustration.

"I don't normally like to do that, but sometimes it comes down to crunch time and you have to perform," he said. "I just felt if we had one more week like that, we were done."

Newman, who has finished second in both Winston Cup races at Kansas Speedway, said he understood NASCAR's reasons for the red flag.

"We're here to race, and I commend them for wanting to finish the race under green," said Newman, whose 14 top-five finishes are the most by any driver this season.

Pole-winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. fought his way back from a bad pit stop to finish sixth. He had hoped a good showing would take attention away from his announcement that he drove several races this season with the lingering effects of a concussion.

He led 10 laps and was in contention when he pitted under caution in the 143rd lap. But his pit crew had trouble with his left front tire, and Earnhardt was last getting out of the pits.

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