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Gordon takes heat to win

With a car running too hot, he makes a brief lead stand at Darlington.

By BRANT JAMES
Published May 14, 2007


DARLINGTON, S.C. - The 3-foot tall plume of steam hissing from the valve on his hood was feeding Jeff Gordon's pessimism. His race car's water temperature had been spiking for 100 laps or more and he didn't think it had enough to reach the 367th and final lap at Darlington Raceway on Sunday.

But old faithful came through. Make that new faithful, as in another winning Car of Tomorrow race for a Hendrick Motorsports team that is showing every sign of dominating NASCAR's future as it lords over its present.

Hendrick Motorsports has won all four races employing the ostensibly safer and more economical so-called Car of Tomorrow. Gordon's third win of the season kept him atop the points. Teammate Jimmie Johnson finished third.

Hendrick Motorsports has won four consecutive races twice this season, and has reached Victory Lane in eight of the last nine. Gordon has three of the four in this run, and the season is just 11 races old.

"What a year we're having," said Gordon, who led just the last 22 laps.

And while Hendrick continued to blend exquisite preparation and good fortune, Joe Gibbs Racing, specifically Denny Hamlin, continued to be frustrated. Hamlin led a race-high five times for 179 laps but finished second by .978 seconds when another botched pit stop cost him with 62 laps left.

Ryan Newman was fourth and Carl Edwards fifth.

Gordon won on a day he said he would have been "happy to finish second behind Jimmie," again demonstrating the mightiness of whatever reverse-engineered alien technology Hendrick Motorsports' engine aerodynamics departments are employing.

"They have it figured out," JGR president J.D. Gibbs said of Hendrick's Car of Tomorrow program. "They're running well. We can take some consolation that today I think we had the best car."

Gordon inherited the lead on a caution with 22 laps left when Johnson elected to pit for tires -- and Kurt Busch followed him. Gordon stayed out because he had pitted two laps earlier.

Hamlin moved into second with eight laps left. When he passed what he described as "somebody's entire fender or underbody on the racetrack," he assumed a caution would fly.

"I saw that and I literally pumped my fist in the car because I knew the caution was going to come out," Hamlin said. "And of course, if the caution comes out, it's game over. But no caution. Hendrick gets another break. ... I don't mean to open up a can of worms on that. Forget I said that."

No, no, Gordon said. Hamlin had a point. But he noted the final caution for oil with 17 laps left after David Stremme's engine gave was extremely "inconsistent."

"There absolutely should have been a caution there at the end -- but there shouldn't have been one before it," he said. "There at the end (there was) debris, oil, everything you can imagine on that racetrack and that comes back to the inconsistency. I am glad they didn't throw it at the end, but I didn't understand why they threw it earlier. It can work with you or against you. Today it worked for us."

The yellow closed the field, negated a lead greater than a second and forced his huffing engine into one more restart. It had plenty. Gordon bolted away and held on as Hamlin tussled with Newman and Johnson -- they all wiggled through a turn with eight laps left as Gordon whizzed away for his 78th career win.

Though his mother, Carol Bickford, and several other relatives didn't stay after the race was postponed by rain Saturday night, Gordon gave wife Ingrid Vandebosch a present in the last race she'll be allowed to travel to before giving birth to the couple's first child in late June.