Deja Vu At Bristol

BRISTOL, TN.- - Jeff Gordon used a bump pass to take the lead from Rusty Wallace with three laps remaining to win the Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. It was a move nearly identical to Gordon's bump pass of Wallace on the final lap at Bristol in 1997. Gordon and Wallace worked their way through race traffic to battle for the victory in the closing stages. After Gordon passed Kevin Harvick to move into second place with 18 laps remaining, he set his sights on the leader. With four laps remaining Wallace got loose coming off turn two. Gordon closed in and looked to have a fender underneath Wallace entering the corner. Wallace slammed the door, but one lap later Gordon executed the bump pass to win his first race of the season and 59th of his career. Gordon rejoiced in victory lane with his crew and car owner Rick Hendrick. In the spring of 1997, Wallace was slowed by a lapped car on the backstretch of the final lap. Gordon made the bump pass in turn three to take the win. Five years later the situation was the same. The end result was also the same.

Gordon started from the pole position but lost the top spot to Dale Earnhardt Jr entering turn one on the first lap. Gordon slipped back to third on lap five when Rusty Wallace passed. The first caution came out one lap later when Todd Bodine spun on the backstretch. Bodine would also bring out the second caution with another spin ten laps later. The third caution came at lap 29 for a spin by Robby Gordon. At the front of the field, Earnhardt, Wallace, and Jeff Gordon held the top three positions. Lap 56 brought the fourth caution for Ricky Craven's spin and Elliott Sadler wrecked on the backstretch to bring out a caution on lap 67. The yellow flag fever subsided to allow for nearly 100 laps of green flag racing. Gordon passed Wallace for the runner-up spot on lap 111 and took the top spot from Earnhardt Jr on lap 130. It was the first time Gordon had led since July at Daytona.

The first pit stops of the evening came under caution on lap 151. Gordon came onto pit road with the lead and left with the top spot. A caution for debris on the track on lap 168 followed. After that, a long green flag run commenced.

Gordon was clearly motivated to score his 59th victory as he pushed his way around Mark Martin on lap 242 to put the Ford driver a lap down. After he got hung up in traffic and lost the top spot to Earnhardt Jr on lap 247, he put the hammer down and regained the point just ten laps later. The next caution came out on lap 291 when Steve Park spun. Once again Gordon left pit road with the lead.

On the restart chaos reigned when the lapped cars of Dale Jarrett and Jeremy Mayfield made contact. Jarrett spun across the track and collected fifth place Jeff Burton. Things happen fast at Bristol-- if you don't stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.

The next caution waved on lap 312 after Jeff Green destroyed the front of his Chevrolet by running into Ricky Craven. Gordon continued to hold the top spot while sheet metal was torn up behind him. Of note was the performance of Sterling Marlin who quietly worked his way into the top-10 by avoiding the earlier carnage.

Ryan Newman wrecked in turn three on lap 334 with an assist from Mark Martin. Kyle Petty, fighting to get back on the lead lap, took exception to Gordon not slowing down to allow him to get a lap back. Petty moved up the track as the cars slowed to show his displeasure. "Ask NASCAR if they just saw what Kyle did to me, is he trying to give me a flat tire?" Gordon said to his crew over his in-car radio. "If he works with me on the restart, I'll give him his lap back. Go tell his spotter that. He has to work with me."

Kyle Petty's wife even made a trip down to Gordon's pit to express her displeasure over Gordon's refusal to let her husband back on the lead lap. After Petty had threatened over his radio to wreck Gordon, cooler heads prevailed when Gordon's spotter relayed the drivers' promise to help him. But the gentleman's agreement nearly backfired on the next caution on lap 346 for Hut Sticklin's wreck when Gordon slowed in an attempt to let Petty pass him but Wallace, running in second, tried to take advantage and pass Gordon himself. So Gordon had to speed up and Petty failed to pass him before the start-finish line. Under the caution, Matt Kenseth, Jimmy Spencer, Sterling Marlin, and Kevin Harvick pitted for the final time. Gordon elected to stay on the track knowing when he made his final pit stop, he would restart behind those that had pitted earlier.

On lap 369 the caution waved when Mike Skinner hit Casey Atwood in turn two. Gordon left pit road behind Rusty Wallace and Ward Burton. As the field came down for the restart, Robby Gordon began tapping the rear of Jimmie Johnson's Chevrolet. As the green flag waved, Gordon hit Johnson and sent the Lowe's Chevrolet spinning into the path of Mark Martin. Johnson suffered heavy front end damage and finished 34th. Robby Gordon, driving as he always has with a chip on his shoulder, was given a black flag two lap penalty.

On the restart, Wallace and Gordon began working their way around the drivers who pitted earlier. On lap 403 Dale Earnhardt Jr got into the back of Ward Burton entering turn three. Burton spun up the track and destroyed the rear of his Dodge. He got out of his car and threw his heat shields at the window net of Earnhardt Jr's Chevrolet. Under caution Tony Stewart made contact with the rear of Jerry Nadeau's car. Stewart, running ninth at the time, was forced to pit after an oil line broke. He was relegated to a 24th place finish.

With three of the four drivers in front of him in the points standings have sub-par evenings, Jeff Gordon knew that a victory would be huge not only statistically but also in importance toward his fifth Winston Cup title. On lap 432 he passed Bobby Hamilton for seventh place and passed Marlin for sixth on lap 437. At the front of the field Kevin Harvick passed Matt Kenseth for the top spot on lap 444. The question was whether Wallace and Gordon had enough laps left to catch Harvick.

The answer was a resounding yes. Gordon followed Wallace through the traffic passing Jimmy Spencer and Kurt Busch to move up to fourth with 40 laps to go. He passed Kenseth for third with 22 laps remaining following Wallace past the DeWalt Ford. Four laps later he followed Wallace past Harvick. Gordon closed in on Wallace but couldn't get to the rear bumper of the Miller Lite Ford. With four laps remaining, Wallace got loose coming off turn two. Gordon closed in and appeared to get a fender inside. Wallace shut the door but a bump pass in turn three one lap later proved to be the winning move.

"I just wanted to win the race really bad," Gordon said. "I just wanted to take advantage of an opportunity. These guys gave me such an awesome race car. We had great pit stops all night long. They deserve a win. We don't deserve to be written about having a losing streak so thank God that's over. I really want to thank God for everything-- getting us through so much. These guys stuck together giving so much to this race team. It's just been an amazing night. I feel like it's the first time I've ever won." Gordon led the most laps (235) but slipped back to ninth after a pit stop with 130 laps remaining. He patiently worked his way through traffic following Wallace. After Wallace got hung up behind Joe Nemechek with four laps to go, Gordon pounced. "He got bottled up in some traffic and if I could get to him I could make a move," Gordon said. "He got real loose and shut the door on me. Once he shut the door on me I said 'alright, fair game right there.' I got into him a little bit, he got loose and I hope he'll understand tomorrow."

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