The Wizard Of Oz

KANSAS CITY, KS.- - Yes, Toto, we are in Kansas and we like it forevermore. Jeff Gordon went into the Protection One 400 at Kansas Speedway knowing that another poor finish would likely end his championship hopes for 2002. Gordon and the DuPont team made a statement toward that goal in a big way by leading the most laps en route to the victory. Gordon started 10th and ran among the leaders virtually all day. He took the lead from Bill Elliott on lap 147 and gave up the top spot only during an exchange of green flag pit stops on lap 207. He pulled away from Ryan Newman as the laps wound down, but a late race caution and subsequent red flag gave Newman one more chance. On a restart with three laps remaining Gordon pulled away from Newman to claim the win. It was his third victory in the past six races and the 61st of his career. Gordon has won both Winston Cup races held at Kansas Speedway.

Starting Strong

From the drop of the green flag it was obvious that Jeff Gordon had a car that was capable of winning. Randy Dorton, the head engine builder at Hendrick Motorsports, supplied the HMS drivers with a little extra horsepower this weekend and the affect showed up in a big way. As Dale Earnhardt Jr and Ryan Newman traded the top spot, Gordon started passed Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett within two laps to take over eighth place. He moved up to seventh on lap three with a pass on Michael Waltrip. The first caution of the day came on lap six when Tony Raines cut a tire on the frontstretch. He lost control and hit Ken Schrader's Pontiac before spinning into the concrete wall. Behind Raines, the carnage was heavy. Ward Burton, Casey Atwood, Bobby Labonte, Stuart Kirby, Jeff Green, and Elliott Sadler all were collected in the chain reaction. For Labonte, it was a weekend to forget at Kansas. He wrecked his primary car in the final practice session on Saturday and was caught in the abyss on Sunday.

Stop And Go

Gordon moved up into the top five by passing Tony Stewart on the restart on lap 15. Four laps later the caution waved when Michael Waltrip cut a tire and hit the wall in turn two. The restart came on lap 26 and Gordon wasted no time in passing his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for the fourth position. Two laps later the caution flag waved again when Morgan Shepherd got loose coming off turn two and was tapped by Kyle Petty. Shepherd spun sideways and collected Jack Sprague and Ken Schrader. Everyone on the lead lap came onto pit road with the exception of race leader Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon who moved up to second position. On the restart Gordon kept pace with Newman. Dave Blaney brought out the fourth caution with a spin on the frontstretch on lap 44. Gordon came onto pit road for four tires and restarted in 16th place.

Hooked Up

Gordon steadily worked his way through traffic and moved up to ninth on lap 72. Six laps later the caution waved when Greg Biffle spun in turn three and made hard contact with the wall. Gordon came onto pit road in 8th and left in 4th place after a two tire change. On the restart he moved up to third passing Matt Kenseth in turn one. Dale Earnhardt Jr passed Gordon for position on lap 86 but Gordon regained the third spot by passing Johnny Benson on lap 91. The drivers who changed four tires were running faster lap times and Gordon could not hold the DuPont Chevrolet on the bottom of the track. On lap 93 he lost three spots as Rusty Wallace, Jeff Burton, and Bill Elliott passed. A debris caution on lap 102 brought the lead lap cars to pit road. Gordon changed four tires and dropped to 11th place.

Major Moves

He passed Mark Martin on the restart for tenth and moved up to eighth two laps later. Steve Park brought out the next caution after spinning in turn three and backing into the wall. Park lost the air on the rear spoiler of his running on the inside of Sterling Marlin. Gordon took seventh from Jeff Burton on lap 118 with a pass on the outside in turn one. Three laps later he took sixth place from Earnhardt Jr. By the time Stuart Kirby's engine blew on lap 141 to bring out a caution, Gordon had moved up to fourth. On pit road he gained two spots to leave in second place behind Bill Elliott. On the restart he ran up to Elliott's back bumper and took the lead with a strong run coming off turn four. The points standings took a shift one lap later when Marlin got loose on the inside of Mike Wallace coming off turn two. Jeff Burton couldn't check up in time and hit the rear of Marlin's car sending it into the backstretch wall. Marlin careened across the track before coming to rest on the infield. He got out of the car under his own power but would suffer a DNF.

Encore Performance

On lap 170 Jimmie Johnson came onto pit road with a cut right rear tire. It would drop him one lap off the pace. At the front of the field, Gordon was checking out. His lead on Ryan Newman was nearly four seconds. His final pit stop came on lap 207 under the green flag. On lap 247 the caution flag waved for debris on the backstretch. Points leader Mark Martin, running in 10th, pulled onto pit road and behind the wall with engine failure. The restart came with 15 laps to go and Gordon pulled out to a lead over Newman. He looked to be coasting to the victory when a crash with six laps remaining changed things. Johnny Benson drifted high in turn four and collected Jimmy Spencer. Ricky Rudd and Jeremy Mayfield also suffered damage in the crash. The race was red flagged to allow for track clean-up and a green flag finish. The green flag waved with three laps remaining and Gordon held off Newman to win at Kansas for the second straight year.

"I kind of put my foot in my mouth last week when I said we had to win and then I had to back it up," Gordon said. "But this team did an amazing job. They did a lot of work coming into this event, went off notes from last year, never gave up, and had great horsepower under the hood. I'm exhausted... I was fine until they threw the red flag. I didn't realize how hot it was until we sat over there." Gordon made a significant gain in the points standings. He moved up to fourth in points trailing Jimmie Johnson by 109 points. Sterling Marlin had a heavy impact crash on the backstretch on lap 148 and finished 33rd. Mark Martin had an engine problem with 16 laps remaining and failed to finish the event. "I saw that he had a problem but I didn't know what it was," Gordon said. "I saw Sterling too. Everytime those guys have had trouble, so have we. So I didn't want to put too much into it. Just wanted to run our race. I'm so proud of these guys and thank God for a safe day. That thing was on rails, I was loving it." It was the second straight victory for Hendrick Motorsports with Jimmie Johnson winning at Dover last week. It also marked the first time since 1996 that two different drivers have won back-to-back races for Hendrick Motorsports when Gordon and Terry Labonte scored victories at North Wilkesboro and Charlotte.

Post-Race Press Conference
Following the race, Jeff Gordon, crew chief Robbie Loomis, and car owner Rick Hendrick discussed the day's events with the media.

JG: "It was a good day for us. When we unloaded off the truck on Friday, we were pretty awesome. I felt good from our win here last year and from the test we had with Goodyear. I was a little disappointed when we qualified 10th. I thought we were capable of being a little bit better than that. Yesterday in practice, we were one of the fastest cars on the track. You just had that feeling, you know. You could just sense that we had something that was going to be strong for today. When they dropped the green flag and I drove by a couple of cars, I knew right then it was going to be a good day. We got a little bit tight and I don't know if the track freed up or if we freed the car up. Track position was also key. We had to overcome some adversity. One time when we stayed out with Ryan (Newman) and everybody else peeled off and I told the guys that I was sorry right then because I knew that that could bite us. We lost track position and never really got the long green flag runs that we needed to gain those positions back. We tried a two-tire stop and I got blocked in the pits and didn't take off. There were some times when I was shaking my head thinking today wasn't the day. But once we got those long green flag runs, we just found out how good our car was. We drove by some great race cars and drove up into the top five and then came in and the guys just busted off a great stop. From then on, it was our race to take control of."

Regarding the point standings, how much did you need to win today?
JG: "Well, we've won three out of the last six races but those other three were really not good. I don't know if we needed a win, but we needed a strong finish. We needed to gain some points. Obviously, we couldn't ask for more than we got out of it today. It's funny how things happen. Last week I thought this was not meant to be. And this week.....whew....we got 'em. We're on top of our game and we've got a shot at this thing (championship). These last seven races are going to be really interesting. We can't focus on what other guys are doing- whether they're doing something good or having trouble- all we can focus on is our own program. That's how we've won championships in the past and that's how we're going to win them in the future. It seems like we're coming into our own here towards the end of the season where we're getting better and that's got me really pumped up and excited to go to each race. Talladega is kind of a wash because it's a restrictor-plate deal. But we're going to go get what we can out of there. And then when we go to Charlotte, we're going to be on a mission. It's going to be exciting."

On the tires near the end of the race
JG: "I was really disappointed with that last set of tires. When we took off and I was in clean air, I was driving hard. Literally, the thing was just wrecking going into turn one and turn three. I felt like I was losing a lot of time on the track. Maybe other guys were fighting the same thing and I just didn't realize it. But it was everything I could do to just hold onto it. So when the caution came out, we got the idea that maybe we needed to come in and get tires. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened. But when I looked in my mirror and I saw a line up high. I wasn't sure if they're coming and Robbie said for me to make the call. I saw they weren't coming and I crossed my fingers and hoped that when we went back green that baby would stick. And actually, that was the best the car had been all day was when the tires cooled down a little bit and the pressures were up, that thing was on a rail."

Discuss your team meeting last Monday
JG: "I was not real happy after last weekend's race (Dover) and I think everybody knew that. It wasn't anybody's fault, but you see it get so close and then you see it start to fall apart. It's frustrating. You want to win the championship and every lap and every position counts. I was pretty upset. When we left, I said it right there on TV that if we didn't do something in Kansas, we'd be in trouble. I'm glad I said it now, but at the time I wasn't so sure it was the right thing to say. But Robbie Loomis meets with the guys every week and I had a crazy week so I wasn't really around. But in today's meeting, I told the guys that unfortunately we needed a win today. But fortunately, we're capable of a win today. I said we should just go out there and show them what we're made of. Sometimes you've got that feeling you're going to win and sometimes you don't have it at all and you go out there and win. It was just awesome today to see how the team worked together and never panicked. Everything really fell in place for us."

After the crash in Dover were you happy to go to Kansas?
JG: "Yeah, I knew that we were good here last year. And we were good at Chicago earlier in the year and these tracks are similar. I was just glad to get out of Dover. It didn't matter where we were going, I just wanted to go somewhere else and get another race under out belt and show that we could go out and win. But I do like this track. I'm probably more excited about coming back here next year than I was this year."

In the next few races, will you be an advisor or a competitor to Jimmie Johnson?
JG: "How am I supposed to advise a guy who's been wearing me out all year long? There are some people that have it and some people that don't. The guy has got it. There's just something about it. When it's crunch time, he knows how to get the win. What's amazing to me with these young guys- especially Jimmie- is the head they've got on their shoulders. We've put him in great equipment, but there are a lot of guys out there in great equipment. He's spectacular. It's more than just his driving ability. It's the way he thinks and how he handles himself. We talk a lot. We've become great friends. But I don't know if we talk about that. I guess maybe we need to get a little bit closer to the end before I can offer him anything. I haven't seen the pressure get to him. Right now, I really don't want him to be thinking about it. I just want him to go out there and run his races the same way we are. What I've seen so far, he doesn't need anything from me."

What does it mean to will you way to two victories?
JG: "I know what you're saying. I was putting the pressure on myself and the team at the same time. I don't normally like to do that. Sometimes it's just crunch time when you've got to perform and you don't have a choice. It's like a do or die situation. After the last three weeks, I just felt if we had another week like that, we were done. Whether that's the case or not, it popped into my mind. So, I guess I'll start willing us into some more wins."

Can you put your finger on the change you've been going through this season?
JG: "It's hard to really put your finger on why you win some races and why you don't win. I can't say that we're really doing anything different today. The communication's always been good. The effort's always been there. There are silly things that can knock you out of contention. At Bristol (first round), I had the car to win the race but spun out and crashed. The first Darlington, we had a car capable to winning and I got caught up in a wreck. Now we're back in Kansas. But this time, we brought more horsepower than we've had all season long. That's probably been the biggest gain. I hope we can keep bringing this stuff the rest of the season because that's going to get us some more wins and make us a serious threat for the championship."

How much of your win today was engine and how much was the nose kickout?
JG: "I just think it's clean air. Ryan (Newman) was one of the best cars and he's in a Ford. When he got out front, he drove away. I think that's really what means the most is getting the car out front. Horsepower is big for us. The No. 12 and the No. 2 have had it all year long. Maybe we're closing the gap in some areas and learning more about the kick and making more out of it. I think we're just on more equal ground. We haven't been a threat for the win on these types of tracks most of the year. I'm thankful that NASCAR gave us the kick, but I don't really feel like it's made the difference of whether you're competitive or not."

With the foundation of the #48 team built on the #24 team, can you beat them?
JG: "Everybody out there is beatable. If we're on top of our game, I don't think there's anybody better. But we know what we're up against there. We know what the cars are and we know what the power under the hood is. There are places where they're good, and places where we're good. We can't beat them if we get knocked in the back like we did at Dover. If we're flat-out racing them, there will be some when we'd beat them and some when they'd beat us. Usually championships don't come down to that. They come down to failures and they come down to mistakes. They rarely come down to just a guy outperforming. But if this thing stays the way it is, that's what it's going to come down to in the last few races. We'll have to wait and see."

Have you ever seen a points battle like this one?
JG: "Not that I've been a part of or that I've seen. Typically, when you're in a season you have that mindset that it's your year. Something clicks to give you an edge that you're going to do it. You just feel good and the right things are happening. Many times this year, I haven't had a clue. It's been an up and down year. Other than 1997, when it came right down to me and Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett, I've never seen a year like this where so many guys are capable of winning it and yet none of them seem to be a dominant force to take it. I really don't know what it's going to take or who's going to come out on top, but I do believe it's going to come down to either the final race or at least right there at the end. Somebody has got to get some momentum. After we won those two back-to-back races I felt like momentum was on our side. We were 60 points out. I'm hoping we can start over and get back in that groove. All year long, nobody has really stood out."

Discuss Talladega next weekend
JG: "I don't know what this new fuel cell is going to do, but hopefully it'll spread the field out and we won't have as many cautions. But if we don't have any cautions, it's going to come down to fuel mileage. And I don't know how that's going to shake out. Talladega is anybody's race. We know that going in."

Are you the driver to beat right now?
JG: "A lot of guys have won their first championship and it isn't always based on experience. We won our first championship in 1995 and we were up against the best: Dale Earnhardt and Richard Childress Racing. If you've got the cars and the confidence and the ability, you're capable. The team is capable. It doesn't matter how many championships you've won in the past. I know how a team functions by having a championship under your belt, it puts you in a position to go through the ups and downs and ride the waves. If I thought somebody had a clear-cut advantage, I'd tell you. Based on us winning the race today, I'm feeling pretty good about our efforts. We've got to get further down the road before we know who's going to take this thing."

Discuss NASCAR's new medical policy of having a mandatory follow up
JG: "I think it's a good idea. If you can't clear a CT Scan, you don't need to be out there in a race car. You don't need to be out there on a football field. I'd also like to see them get us some water and something cool when we're out there during red flags. I'll put that one in for today."

What did you do differently on the Kansas set-up this year compared to last year?
Robbie Loomis: "Things really do change so much that aerodynamically the car is a lot different this year than last year. And the tire is probably the biggest change. We had a different right side tire. We had Jack Sprague out here and test and we learned a lot from that. Jimmie and Chad went to Kentucky and tested a couple of times and we learned a lot from that. From that, we came up with some good stuff that obviously worked."

Do you have to talk to Jeff on the radio and motivate him during red flag situatons like today?
Robbie Loomis: "The one thing you don't tell him is that you've got a cold drink of water up there. Jeff is a self-motivator. I knew he was fine out there. He came on the radio and said he wouldn't be surprised if some of the drivers passed out (from the heat), and he didn't mean himself. He had visions of seeing that checkered flag when he came back around there."

On Jimmie Johnson taking over the points lead and Jeff Gordon winning today
Rick Hendrick: "To come out of here with the lead and to gain points is really good. It's going to be a war to the end. There's a bunch of good cars there and they're running hard every week. Nobody can put it on cruise control. Everybody's got to race as hard as they can every week. It's anybody's championship, I think. We're just glad we've got two (teams) in the hunt and hopefully we can have some good luck and one of them will get it. It's going to be quite a contest between now and the end of the ear because there are some really good tracks coming up for them."

With the sport being so competitive, is it possible to match or beat the number of championships won be Dale Earnhardt or Richard Petty?
Rick Hendrick: "I think so. Jeff Gordon is only 31 years old and already has four championships and is going for the fifth one. The competition is stiffer. But if we can control the failures and finish every race, we can leave the rest of it up to Jeff Gordon. The answer in my heart is yes."

Have you ever seen a tighter battle for the title?
Rick Hendrick: "I've never seen four or five cars that were in this position. If Ryan Newman or Matt Kenseth hadn't had any bad luck, they'd be right there too. In the past, maybe you had four guys you had to beat. Now, you've got 10 or 15 guys you've got to beat. The competition has changed. I don't think a guy that can start in the middle of the pack and never lead and just conserve and wait for the end of the race has got a shot out there anymore. That's the way it was when we first started racing. But now, you've got 10 or 12."

Discuss the engine development
Rick Hendrick: "You always try to improve it. We did step it up a couple of weeks ago and we've been running all kinds of tests and simulations on the dyno. But we brought more power and turned more rpms. That's pretty tough to ask the engines to do that all at the same time. But we have a lot of confidence in Randy Dorton. He's been there since the beginning. We've got a great shop. If we wanted to step it up, Randy felt comfortable. When you look at races, it's hard to say you got beat by horsepower if you go back and look at all of them. Durability is something. The first priority is that you've got to be there (finish)."

Robbie Loomis: "You have to always keep the big picture in mind. I knew we would have had this a lot sooner if Randy had 100% confidence in it. The nice thing about Randy Dorton's engines is that when you bring them out, you can sleep good on Saturday night. You know it's going to be rock solid on Sunday."

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