HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) — Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson went at each other as though they were on a little dirt track, not a high-banked speedway.
Imagine the possibilities when they’re competing for a championship.
Over the last 10 laps of a rain-delayed race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, these two guys were sliding all over the track, yanking the wheel this way and that to keep from smashing into the wall, throwing caution to the wind as they raced for the checkered flag.
It was downright thrilling, the sort of white-knuckle racing that showed this sport at its very best. And at the end, it was Gordon crossing the line first Tuesday, his one-time protege about a half-second behind.
“When you’re battling a guy as talented as Jimmie is and that team, as good as they are, definitely, it’s going to be significant,” Gordon said. “That’s the kind of race team we have right now. We’ve not been able to battle with those guys like we’ve been able to do this year.
“And that,” he added, “is what’s got me extremely excited.”
Everyone should be.
While there will be 10 other drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, the thought of two teammates — Johnson, the defending five-time champion, dueling with Gordon, a four-time champion who’s won more Cup races than everyone but Richard Petty and David Pearson — is quite tantalizing.
Even Johnson, the guy who came in second, paused in front of a television to watch a replay of those final laps of the AdvoCare 500.
“To race that hard for a win is what we all wake up and are excited to do each and every time we get in a race car,” Johnson said. “Even if I did come in second, it’s OK. I’d much rather have won. But we left it all out there on the track.”
Gordon captured his third win of the year and his 85th overall, his career in a full-blown renaissance at age 40. He’s already won more races this season than he did the last three years combined. He’s certainly feeling good about his chances heading to the Chase, which begins after next weekend’s race at Richmond.
“I’ve been trying to step it up for 10 years,” Gordon said, referring to the decade he’s gone since the last of his titles, a period when he ceded dominance to Johnson.
He snapped a tie with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for third on the career victory list. Petty (200) and Pearson (105) are the only drivers with more wins than Gordon, who received a special plaque from NASCAR during the victory ceremony in front of the main grandstand.
“Eighty-five,” he said. “That is un-un-believable. With the kind of day we had, the kind of year we’re having, I feel rejuvenated.”
He sure earned this win.
Johnson put his No. 48 car in front of Gordon’s Chevrolet a couple of times but couldn’t hold on coming out of the corners. At the end, with both drivers racing as hard as they could on fading tires, their cars came close to getting sideways several times.
Johnson made one last run for the lead on the final lap, but had to back off to keep from putting his car in the wall. Gordon pulled away in the No. 24 to win by 0.598 seconds.
“I’m so glad I grew up racing on dirt,” Johnson said. “I could have spun out four or five times at the end.”
The defending champ isn’t going to give up his unprecedented title run without a fight. In fact, he moved past Kyle Busch to take the top spot in the season standings, so he’s still the one everyone’s chasing even with only one win this year.
“The reality is we have a lot to be proud of,” Johnson said. “We know we have a very good chance of winning the championship.”
Tony Stewart was feeling a lot better about his chances after making up more than 8 seconds on the leaders in the final laps to finish third. He solidified his hold on 10th place — the final spot that will be determined on points — going to the last race before the Chase.
“The points are big going into next week, that’s for sure,” Stewart said. “It may come down to one point. Having the strong finish we had here, maybe that will be the difference in making it or not making it next week.”
Six drivers had already clinched a spot in the 12-driver playoff, and three more joined them Tuesday. Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman are locked in on points, and Brad Keselowski wrapped up at least a wild card with his sixth-place finish.
This was only the second Cup race since 1978 to be run on a Tuesday. Originally scheduled for Sunday night, it was postponed for two days as the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee moved through Georgia.
The drivers had to cope with much different conditions than they faced in qualifying Saturday — from sunny and humid with temperatures in the lows 90s to windy and overcast with a fall-like reading of 63 degrees.
Two more rain delays Tuesday forced the drivers to improvise on the fly, looking for the line that worked best at more than 180 mph in the ever-changing conditions.
But Gordon clearly had the best car on the 1.54-mile trioval, leading 146 of the 325 laps. Matt Kenseth was next, out front for 64 laps, and Johnson led just 29 laps after struggling early in the day and nearly going a lap down.
Stewart was followed across the line by Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards. Denny Hamlin finished eighth, moved up one spot to 12th in the season standings, and has a firmer grip on the second wild card. The last two spots in the Chase will go to the drivers ranking 11th to 20th in the points with the most wins. Hamlin has one of those precious victories.
No one claimed the $3 million prize for the Sprint Summer Showdown, which paired five fans with the winners of designated races at Indianapolis, Pocono, Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol. Keselowski won a pair of those races and represented two fans, and the other eligible drivers were Kyle Busch, Paul Menard and Marcos Ambrose.
Menard was 18th, Ambrose 21st, and Busch faded to 23rd after leading three times for a total of 19 laps early on.
Pole winner Kasey Kahne also had a tough day, smashing into another car on a restart and settling for a 34th-place finish that severely damaged his long-shot Chase hopes.
But those two guys who finished up front put on quite a show.
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