BRISTOL, TN. (March 29)- - Kurt Busch won his third consecutive race at Bristol Motor Speedway by holding off Rusty Wallace on a series of late race restarts in the Food City 500. It was his fourth victory at Bristol in his last five starts on the .533-mile track. Busch was able to stay out in front of Wallace on six restarts in the final 115 laps of the race. Wallace led the most laps, but Busch was in position to take the lead when Jimmie Johnson pitted under caution on lap 382. On the final restart with three laps to go, Wallace closed in on Busch entering turn one but was unable to get a nose underneath the Sharpie Ford exiting the corner. Busch pulled away to win his first race of the season and ninth of the career.
Jeff Gordon's day culminated with a ninth place finish, but it was the tale of two races for Gordon. He battled a loose handling car during the first half of the day and dropped from his outside front row starting spot back to seventh position by lap 35. He moved up to sixth on lap 115 but that was the highest position he'd attain for the remainder of the day. Adjustments under caution pushed Gordon back to 12th by lap 200. He steadily made progress through the field. He passed Ryan Newman and Elliott Sadler for position and was running ninth when he came onto pit road for a green flag pit stop on lap 366. Just as he had done last year at Bristol, Gordon made a mental error by coming down both pit roads instead of exiting after his service was completed. He had joked about the situation earlier in the week, but after making the same mistake in back-to-back seasons, humor might be in short supply. He fell back to 18th place, one lap down. After getting into position to be the first car one lap down, Gordon received the break he needed when Dale Earnhardt Jr spun in turn two on lap 430. Gordon was able to restart on the lead lap with fresh tires. He gained three positions before a caution flag with 39 laps to go. While other lead lap cars came to pit road, Gordon remained on the track and moved up to 9th. Through the final laps of the race he was unable to overtake Newman for 8th place. On the final lap, Matt Kenseth pushed Jamie McMurray out of the racing groove in turn four allowing Newman to pass. Gordon went to the inside of McMurray but couldn't get by as the cars took the checkered flag. The ninth place effort moved Gordon up to 12th in the series standings, 177 behind points leader Kenseth.
DARLINGTON, S.C. (March 22)- - Jeff Gordon will join NASCAR legends David Pearson and Cale Yarborough to take the first laps at Darlington Raceway at night. The exhibition will take place on Tuesday, August 24 where the racing legends will run a few laps to test out the system, similar to Dale Earnhardt's first test of the Daytona International Speedway lighting system in 1998. Construction is well underway on the new lighting system. The first race under the lights will be the Truck series event in November.
Wrong Place, Wrong Time
DARLINGTON, S.C. (March 22)- - Jeff Gordon's run of poor finishes at Darlington Raceway continued in the Carolina 400 as he was swept up in a wreck in turn two on lap 29. Gordon started ninth and was running sixth when Tony Stewart got into the rear of Andy Hillenburg's slower car. Hillenburg spun backwards toward the wall as Gordon was running nearly full throttle on the outside of Elliott Sadler. Gordon slammed the left side of Hillenburg's car and destroyed the front end of the DuPont Chevrolet. After exiting the car under his own power, he made a trip to the infield care center. He was released a few minutes later merely complaining of soreness due to the impact. "I'm pretty sore," Gordon said. "The HANS device did its job, thankfully. The belts did their job. It's just unfortunate. I don't know what happened with Andy getting spun, but there's a bunch of cars out there than don't belong. They're way off the pace and in the way. There are cars out there that aren't up to the speed they need to be (in order) to be in this series. I think you've got to be up to a certain speed. This is the Nextel Cup Series. This is the best of the best, and we don't need to have cars out there just making a qualifying attempt and making the race." The early race incident resulted in a 41st finish for Gordon. "I haven't taken a hit like that in a long time, if ever," he said. "The car was just starting to come to me. It's a long race here at Darlington and lap 29 an incident like that... I know it wasn't Andy Hillenburg's fault. But there's a lot of cars out there who don't belong out there that are just so far off the pace. As long as they're allowed to go out there and run those speeds, then by all means they should. It's not against them. But on a narrow track like this something needs to be done about that. Our day's over and we'll just go on to the next one." On tracks such as Bristol and Darlington, having 'field filler' cars such as Hillenburg, Joe Ruttman, Kirk Schelmerdine, and Morgan Shepherd running off the pace creates a sense of havoc on the racetrack. Due to the limited amount of full-time Nextel Cup teams, the 'field fillers' were able to qualify for the races. At Darlington, Andy Hillenburg's qualifying lap was 20 miles per hour slower than the pole sitter's lap. Hillenburg apologized for the incident with Gordon, though it was Stewart who was at fault for initially spinning Hillenburg. "A fast car hits a slow car and it's the slow car's fault," Hillenburg said. "I'm sorry for Jeff Gordon. I feel bad. A race car driver's worst nightmare is to come in and take out one of the heroes and all the Gordon fans, sorry." The 41st place finish dropped Gordon to 13th in the points standings, the first time he's been outside of the top-ten since March 2003. It was his first DNF in a race since last September at Darlington.
Up Against The Wall
DARLINGTON, S.C. (March 20)- - For the second time in three weeks, Jeff Gordon made contact with the wall on his qualifying lap. Though his light brush against the turn four wall at Darlington Raceway was minor compared to contact he made at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Gordon stayed in the throttle coming off the corner and turned the ninth fastest lap of 170.08 miles per hour. It is his 11th top-ten starting spot in his past 12 races at the 1.366-mile egg shaped track. "We were pretty tight in practice and we made a lot of changes to free it up," Gordon said. "We weren't very good in practice. But that's a great (qualifying) lap. I've been wall happy lately and this isn't a good place to be wall happy. Hopefully we got it out of the way early. Where I hit it, it didn't slow me down because it was late in the corner. But I was doing everything I could to stay out of it much earlier than that. For the whole lap I was pretty sideways." Darlington Raceway has historically been one of Gordon's favorite tracks. He has six career victories at NASCAR's first paved speedway, including an eight race stretch from 1995-1998 that likely won't be duplicated for ages. During those eight races, Gordon posted five victories, a runner-up finish, and two third place efforts. "We always seem to run well at Darlington," Gordon said. "I don't know why we've had more success in the Southern 500. That may not be a bad thing now that the 500-mile race is part of the 'Chase for the Cup.'" The track may even be tougher this time around with the addition of the safer wall barriers. The installation of the barriers has decreased the amount of racing surface in the turns. "This place was difficult to drive before the changes," he said. "We've always run so close to the wall– sometimes even hitting it– in the past. Now we have less track to work with before we hit the wall. I applaud tracks for installing the new walls. Unlike most tracks that have the safer walls, we'll have to adjust our line here." Despite his success at the track, he comes to Darlington looking for redemption after finishes of 33rd and 32nd in 2003 severely hindered his championship hopes. Last year was the first time he failed to post a top-ten in either race at Darlington since his rookie year in 1993. "Darlington got the best of us last year," Gordon said. "We don't want that to happen again this year. I hope that doesn't happen again for another 10 years."
Along The Ohio River
Cincinnati Photos: Key to the city | Interview
<<Commentary by Ellen Siska
CINCINNATI, OH. (March 19)- - The race in Darlington, South Carolina might be the foremost event on Jeff Gordon's calendar, but on Thursday he took time out for something even more important. Gordon signed memorabilia for an auction to benefit the >Make-A-Wish Foundation and participated in several local events in the Cincinnati area. For his efforts on behalf of the charity, Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken presented Gordon with a key to the city (which is even more prestigious than Jimmy Buffett tickets at Riverbend!). Mayor Tom Guidugli of Newport, Kentucky declared Thursday "Jeff Gordon Day" in the neighboring town. "It wouldn't happen without the Make-A-Wish Foundation," Gordon said." I've had a lot of boys and girls come to race tracks all over the country who wanted to be at a race or meet a race car driver or meet me, there's nothing that touches your heart more than something like that." (in part from wcpo.com)
<<Emergency Landing (includes video)
Cincinnati Photos: Key to the city | Interview
<<Commentary by Ellen Siska
Once Is Enough
NEW YORK, N.Y. (March 14)- - Jeff Gordon denied any interest in participating in another Formula One test session. "I've talked about going to the Barcelona race (May 9) for fun, but that's gotten misconstrued," Gordon said. "I did my test session last year, and that's all I wanted to do." According to a published report on F1racing.net, Gordon had been invited to participate in a four-day test session for the BMW Williams team. Last year Gordon participated in a publicity-type session where he turned ten laps in one of Juan Pablo Montoya's older cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Crossing Muddy Waters
HAMPTON, GA. (March 14)- - After a miserable race at Las Vegas a week earlier, Dale Earnhardt Jr rebounded with a victory in the Golden Corral 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Earnhardt Jr ran in the top-ten for the majority of the day but came on strong as the laps wound down. On lap 266 he passed Jeremy Mayfield for the lead and began pulling away. He lost the top spot during green flag pit stops, but quickly re-took the top spot just six laps after emerging from pit road. It was Earnhardt Jr's second win of the season and 11th of his career. Following an embarrassing performance at Las Vegas, Earnhardt Jr spent the week testing at Bristol Motor Speedway and Kentucky Speedway. The track time paid off in a big way with a rejuvenating performance in Georgia.
Jeff Gordon's day was surely not as satisfying. He took the lead of the race on lap 9 and led until Tony Stewart passed on lap 46. However, a loose handling car hindered his efforts in the mid-stages of the race. A brush with the wall surely didn't help matters as the day progressed. Following the final pit stop, Gordon made up a few positions and salvaged a 10th place finish. It was his third top-10 in four races this season, but hardly the start to 2004 that Gordon and his team had hoped for. He slipped to fifth in the points standings, 130 behind Matt Kenseth.
LOS ANGELES, CA. (March 8)- - Jeff Gordon appeared on "The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn" on Wednesday, March 3. Gordon taped his segment from the CBS Television City studio in Los Angeles before heading to the NASCAR IMAX movie premiere. He attended the premiere showing of "NASCAR 3D: The IMAX Experience" on March 3 at the Universal CityWalk IMAX Theater in Universal City, California. The film takes the viewer into the cockpit of a NASCAR stock car, complete with the sounds of racing. Behind the scenes access and interviews with those in the sport are also included. The film will debut in IMAX theaters on Friday, March 12.
Las Vegas Salvage Yard
LAS VEGAS, NV. (March 8)- - Sunday brought a small dose of salvation for Jeff Gordon. In the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Gordon finished 15th after starting at the rear of the field. The day was an exercise in patience for Gordon and the DuPont team. He worked his way up to 30th by lap seven, and moved to 25th on lap 25. After the first round of pit stops, Gordon departed pit road in 18th. However, his march to the front stalled as handling issues pushed him back to 21st on lap 85. After Ryan Newman spun to bring out a caution flag on lap 87, Gordon gained three spots on pit road and restarted in 17th place. At the front of the field, defending champion Matt Kenseth took the lead from Tony Stewart. In the middle of the pack, Gordon made strides up to 14th but faded back to 18th later in the run. Jeff Green's contact with the wall brought out the caution flag on lap 137 which allowed the DuPont team to make some changes to the chassis. Track bar and air pressure adjustments were on tap for Gordon. He restarted in 22nd but the changes greatly helped the car's handling. Twenty laps after the restart, Gordon was up to 14th. Michael Waltrip's wreck in turn four brought the field to pit road and Gordon gained another two positions. His first trip into the top-ten came on lap 175 with a pass on Elliott Sadler. A track bar adjustment on the next pit stop helped the handling even more as Gordon pulled up to 7th on lap 195. However, seventh would be Gordon's high water mark of the day. He slipped back to 8th on lap 209 after Jamie McMurray made a daring three-wide pass on Gordon and Bobby Labonte. A few laps later Mark Martin passed by which relegated Gordon to 9th. The race at the front of the field saw Kenseth take the lead from Kevin Harvick with 37 laps remaining. His descent continued as he dropped to 11th with 25 laps to go. Handling issues continued to hamper his efforts as the laps wound down. Jeff Burton and Kyle Petty both passed Gordon for position in the final laps. Gordon's 15th place finish, while below his often lofty standards, salavaged what started out as an extremely disappointing weekend. "To come from dead last, have great pit stops and be up there in the top-10 and move up one spot in the points, I'm pretty happy with that," Gordon said. "It was a struggle. The whole weekend was quite a fight for us. We thought we were going to come away with a top-10, we were seventh at one time and we really made some big gains. Then all the sudden it just went away, especially on that long run. We didn't have the best car, but I thought we had the best effort for sure." A blown engine during Saturday's practice session forced him to forego his 20th place starting spot on the grid and start in the back. That was the latest in a two day odyessy at the 1.5-mile track for Gordon. On Friday, coming out of turn four during his qualifying lap, Gordon flattened the right side of his car after slamming the wall when the back end broke loose. Though the damage to the right side of the car was extensive, the lap was good enough for the 20th fastest speed. The crew went to work in the garage area and was able to make repairs without having to use a backup car. However, the engine problem on Saturday sent Gordon to the rear of the field at the start of the race. "I made mistakes," Gordon said. "I never like making mistakes and I like to pride myself on the fact that I don't make many. Usually when they come, they come big, so I'm just thankful that they didn't come on Sunday and they came before the race." In the points standings, Gordon resides in fourth place. He trails points leader Matt Kenseth by 119 points. After just one victory in his 2002 championship season, Kenseth has begun his title defense with two dominating victories in the first three races. The champion's statement has indeed been made.
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