Victory At Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, VA.- - This one wasn't about to get away. After pit strategy cost him a chance at victory earlier in the season, this time around Jeff Gordon was going with track position over fresh tires. He capped off a stretch of five consecutive top-5 finishes with a victory in the Subway 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Gordon, who won both Martinsville races from the pole position this season, led from the outset but lost track position on lap 117 when the lapped car of Tony Raines edged Gordon out of the racing groove. He dropped back to eighth and fell further back in the field after a slow pit stop on lap 185. Gordon restarted 15th and patiently worked his way through race traffic. He moved up to seventh by the halfway point on lap 250, and took the runner-up spot with a pass on Dale Earnhardt Jr on lap 284. Gordon took the lead on lap 295 as he made an inside pass on Joe Nemechek. His most harrowing moment came on lap 358 when Mark Martin spun in turn four in a cloud of smoke. As Martin nailed the accelerator, Gordon went into the smoke and came out the other side just as Martin moved up the track. Gordon held the lead through his final pit stop on lap 360 and stayed on the track while others on the lead lap pitted in the final 150 laps. It was a typical short track affair with 15 caution flags. The final restart came with 60 laps remaining with Gordon's teammate Jimmie Johnson behind him in second place. He held Johnson at bay to capture his second win of the season and 63rd of his career. It is Gordon's longest consecutive top-5 streak since a remarkable 17-race stretch in 1998. "We've really come on strong here," Gordon said. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. August wore a lot of people down but we kept our heads up. Our race cars and race team are awesome and I'm looking forward to the rest of the season." After leading 311 of the 500 laps en route to the victory, Gordon closed to within 106 points of second place in the standings with four races remaining. Points leader Matt Kenseth holds a 240 point margin over Kevin Harvick with four races remaining.

Following the race, Jeff Gordon, crew chief Robbie Loomis, and runner-up finisher Jimmie Johnson met with the media to discuss his day.

JG: "I wish we could race at Martinsville every weekend. What a great day for us, a great weekend. This team is on top of their short-track game so well, and really all together are on top of their game the last five races. I really hate that we had that August and part of September like we did. I'd love to be up there battling for that championship, but that kind of took us back a little bit. Weíre just fighting back as hard as we can to win races and finish the season on a positive note, and this will certainly help do that.

What changes did you make?
JG: "We just needed to be out front. In clean air, it was a rocketship. It would just take off. We were out front the first part of the day, and we came in and took two tires. It wasn't so much the two tires, I got knocked up into the marbles between Turns 3 and 4 and lost about three or four positions and never could get them back. We stuck with it, though. That's what makes a great team is to fight hard through those moments in the race. They put four tires on, made adjustments, made great stops the rest of the day. I was able to drive by some guys on new tires and once I got into the lead there was no giving it up. I didn't know if that strategy was going to pay off or not, but I sure am glad we stayed out. I felt like I needed about 60 or 70 laps with about five or six cars ahead of me because we were so good on new tires if I was going to come in and get four tires. Robbie said, 'if Dale Jr comes in, follow him.' I looked in the mirror and saw he was coming, but I saw there weren't many others that were. I said, 'I'm sorry, I can't do it. Not enough guys are coming.' He said, 'OK, it's all up to you. You have to take those tires all the way to the end. We have plenty of fuel.' I just tried to be smooth as I could and keep that lead."

Did you take track position over tires on the last caution?
JG: "I can hand the microphone over to Robbie and let him tell you. He had the bigger picture. He kind of left it in my hands. He said, 'watch those guys behind you, especially Junior. You've only got 23 laps on the tires.' He didn't think they were going to be coming that time, thinking that if there was a caution 15 or 20 laps later, maybe they would come. I looked in my mirror and I saw Junior going toward pit road, but I thought he was just trying to fake me and get me to go down there and then he was going to come back. Plus, he was the only car behind me that was going down there, so I just stayed out. I knew being up front and in clean air that the car was really good, and unless those guys on new tires or unless I made a mistake, one of those guys behind me would get me if we did that, but if we didn't I thought we were going to be in good shape.

R.Loomis: "I'm sitting there and I can see the big picture. I knew there were a bunch of guys that weren't going to pit. I think with 110 laps to go, I told him to keep an eye on his mirror if a caution came out, and he made the right decision. You'll have those days and I feel very grateful he did."

You drove the winning car and the car you own was second. Is that a real win-win situation?
JG: "It doesn't get much better than that. We like to get 1-2, but he's got a few more wins under his belt this year than we have, so hopefully he didn't mind finishing second to us today. We were strong all weekend, and Jimmie struggled most of the weekend, but he was great today, and I knew he would find his rhythm and find what he needed once he got into the race and they did. Don't think I wasn't concerned about him, because I saw how his car came on strong there late in the race and I didn't know if we were going to be able to hold him off or not. I just tried to get a good jump on the green flag and get some distance between us and just be real smooth, not spin the tires and not make mistakes."

Talk about the frustration when you struggled a few months ago and fell out of the points race.
JG: "I think there are different types of frustration levels. The type of frustration we went through was being in situations that we weren't always in control of, like at Bristol. Ken Schrader blew a tire in front of me. I had just went around Matt Kenseth, he let me down in front of him and then Schrader blew a tire. Matt didn't see it and he hit me, spun me out and put me into the wall. I got into a deal with the 77 car at Pocono. Running out of gas, those are the two things that were the biggest frustrations, where I feel like we could say that we werenít getting the fuel mileage we should have been getting or we should put more fuel in it. Those were the toughest days, but I don't think we blamed anybody or anything. We just said, 'hey, we learn from that and we have to go on and make sure we don't do that in the future.' I can tell you right now that Hendrick Motorsports is focusing a lot on fuel mileage, because that's been one thing that has hurt us this year. Performance-wise, looking at the whole year, we've been good enough to win the championship, I think. But you have to have fortune go your way and you have to have good calls. I can only think of a couple of things where we made mistakes that I feel like were either my fault or someone else's fault on the team. Other than that, I feel like we've been real strong, real solid, and you can't put your finger on exactly why those things happen when they did but they did and I'm just proud of the team to fight through that because it was intense. What makes it even worse is, within the team you're fighting hard to get it back, get back on track, go to the next race and say, 'oh, man, come on, anything but a wrecked race car, anything but running out of fuel.' Then it doesn't happen and you go to the next race and then you get rumors that this is going to happen, this change is coming, this person is out, that person's out, and that makes it even tougher for that team to fight through that time. I'm just proud we were able to."

Was there any real decision at all to give up the lead there, based on what you've seen all year?
JG: "Unless a bunch of those guys were coming down pit road, I think the bigger gamble was to come down pit road, not to stay out. All those things were going through our heads at that moment, but I knew I had a good car. It's different when you're out there and your car is fading and you know you're not going to win the race, then you might want to come in and get tires. Maybe that's why Junior did what he did. Maybe his car was starting to fade, maybe Jimmie was putting some pressure on him, and he probably said, 'hey, I know we're not going to win if we stay out, so maybe we need to come in.' That could have been the situation. For us, we had a good car, we had the position, and so it wasnít that difficult a call, especially when I looked in the mirror and he was the only one coming."

What did it mean to you to be back in victory lane?
JG: "It felt great. It was awesome to see the look on Robbie's face and the guys on the team and how excited they were. You can have all the pep talks in the world and pat one another on the back and you can even pay them a bunch of money, and nothing is like getting to Victory Lane, whether it's here or Charlotte or Daytona or wherever. A win is a win and it feels great. Both Robbie and I, when we got the Victory Lane, we both took a deep breath and let it out, that kind of sigh of relief after getting that first one earlier in the year and now getting another one. We can say we have multiple wins this year. Pretty much everything went right except for that two-tire stop. It wasn't the two-tire stop as much as it was a lapped car knocked me up high in 3 and 4, got me out of the groove and a bunch of cars got by me and we couldn't make it up. The reason for the two tires was to maintain track position. As soon as we lost track position, we were in trouble, but once the tires got old, we weren't bad and actually passed a couple of cars and maintained pretty decent position. Then we came in and got four after that. It was a great handling race car, great pit stops, we had maybe one where a lug nut hung up, and I had a car that was able to pass really well. A lot of guys struggled passing today and it wasnít easy, but we were able to get inside cars and drive by them. A couple of spins in front of us, we were able to stay away from them."

Jimmie Johnson had hinted after the race that maybe you didn't give him the whole setup today.
JG: "I donít know where he came up with that. We were parked right next to one another, and we couldn't have given him any more than what we had. I could see the frustration on his face Friday and Saturday. I did everything I could to talk him through it and try to figure out if there was maybe something I was doing different. One time during practice yesterday, he followed me to see what his car was doing versus my car or what I was doing versus what he was doing. All I can say is that his car looked as good or better than mine at the end of the race, not on cold tires or new tires, but on long runs."

R.Loomis: "We share everything. We hardly ever go into a race where our setups are exactly the same, but Chad and I have a great relationship. When one's hurting, we'll go over and say, 'you're not going to be as bad as you think itís going to be,' and you kind of open your books up and let them look at everything. Chad is very knowledgeable and a great crew chief, and he comes in with his own plan and we go race."

How close was this setup to the one you had here last time? Was this the same car as the one you took to victory in the spring?
R.Loomis: "It was the same car, chassis 2446. We love that car. The setup was similar, but it has its differences. The track seemed to be a little tighter this time than it was even on Friday, so we knew coming in on Saturday that it was going to take a little different setup to get the car to turn better in the middle. I don't think we had as a good a drive-off probably this race as we did last race, but we had the car turning in the middle pretty good."

There was some confusion today about when pit road was open. What is your interpretation?
JG: "I was far enough back at that time-- I was running sixth but I had lapped cars between me and the leaders. I saw the green coming off Turn 2, as soon as I got on the back straightaway. I just thought those guys chose not to pit, but I couldn't really tell when it came out or where they were when it came out. I will say that in the past, I have been the leader and basically be driving by him and out of the corner of my eye I'll see him put that flag up, and I think that's not right. There's no reason you can't wait another lap to put it out, I don't know if that's what happened today, but I think there's no reason why we can't run one more lap before we come in to pit. I don't think they should be cutting it that close, in my opinion."

Was Dale Jr the one you were worried about the most at the end?
JG: "Junior can be real aggressive, and I was more concerned with me slipping and making a mistake and letting him get to me. He certainly showed he didn't mind bumping me earlier in the day. But I was equally as concerned with Jimmie as I was with Junior. I actually thought Jimmie had a little better car than Junior did there at the end. I had pulled away from Junior that last time he was out there behind me, pulled away from him pretty good, and felt pretty good about things right then. Even the time before that when we had the long run and were going through traffic, I felt like we had a little bit better car. I saw Jimmie come on real strong the time before that and on that run. I was pretty concerned with him."

With the number of cautions, were you concerned about getting caught on a restart?
JG: "I wanted to see a lot of cautions. When you make the call that we made, where we have to stay out, you want to see as many cautions as you possibly can, because the race starts to wind down and lines them all up double file, and it makes it that much harder for a guy like Junior who is trying to make up positions for him to do that. I didn't mind seeing the cautions. My car was good on new tires. If you have enough cautions, youíre going to give a lot of guys a lap back so that line can get smaller on the bottom. I liked seeing that really long caution. That put a smile on my face, and then there at the end I was kind of happy to see it go green, because we had distanced ourselves and I didn't see a red 8 car or any other car on new tires coming."

Does Martinsville tax you more mentally or physically?
JG: "Itís much more mental than physical. It was cool today. I think the carbon monoxide and some of that might bother you. I have a headache right now, and some of that stuff will dehydrate you more than anything else. I feel like we have one of the best systems out there, but I felt pretty fresh out there for the most part. Not a lot of air moving around, so it's hard to keep cool in the car. Mentally, I think it's a much more difficult race track than anything else."

You've said that Robbie keeps you calm during the race. Did he do that today?
JG: "Oh yeah, he did a few things to soothe me and a few things to pump me up today. He got on me. I was shocked. There was one time I was complaining a little too much, and he stepped up and put me in my place. I was like, 'you go, boy.' I was proud of him."

Robbie, how many times do you have to get on him?
R.Loomis: "Not very often. Jeff has been a great supporter. We've been through a really tough time and the outside world looks at things different than inside and we sat down a month ago and talked. Every now and then, I like to make sure he hears me, but I didn't know if he heard me today because he got real quiet for a long time."

JG: "He gets my attention when I get quiet. Just shut up and drive. I don't know what he told me, I just know it wasn't nice and that I need to just shut up and drive."

Jimmie, it was a great day for Hendrick Motorsports finishes 1-2 here.
J.Johnson: "To have a 1-2 with the 24 and the 48, being housed under the same roof, and Jeff being an owner and mentor to me and Robbie [Loomis] and Brian Whitesell being mentors to Chad Knaus and this whole team, it was a special day, a very special day. I've been struggling this entire weekend. The fastest I was all weekend was 24th or 25th on the board, and to be able to get things figured out and sorted out on how to drive the track and finish second is such a cool accomplishment. It means a lot to me. This is one of the places that is hardest mentally to drive, and even after being spun out and all kinds of crazy stuff happened to us today, we still ended up with a good finish."

You followed Jeff the last part of the race. What was different about his car and yours?
J.Johnson: "I think if the track position had worked out a little differently, I don't know if he would have been able to get by me. He was a little better getting off the corners, but you have to be so much faster than somebody to pass them on the inside, especially as the tires go away. I don't know how the cycles worked out, but I guess he was in front of me all day long and then I caught up to him. If I had been able to get by him sooner, I think I could have held him off at the end. It was a great performance. He's the master. Everybody knows how many victories he has here and how successful he's been here, to run second to him-- I hate running second, but I'm going to run second to him here."

You mentioned that Jeff has been your mentor in racing. Did he helo you get around Martinsville better?
J.Johnson: "We definitely talked about what we look for inside the car, but a tenth of a second here, you're a hero or a zero. A half a tenth, you're going forward. A half a tenth slower, youíre going backwards. To actually pull the information out of him to find that half a tenth that I needed to be competitive today and attempt to race for the win, I was doing the same things, telling them the same things and I just couldn't get it. It took me getting into the race today for me to figure out what I needed to do. On top of that, we put his setup in the car, so to have that luxury, to fall back on Jeff Gordon's setups, helped me a lot on that front. This is a hard place to get any help from anyone when thereís such little margin between first and 30th."

Were you worried that you'd never figure this place out?
J.Johnson: "No. I was running in the 20s and we broke a rear end my first time here. I wish I would have been able to stay in and learn more about it. When I came back the second time, I think I qualified in the top 10 and finished in the top 10. These cars are so heavy and so big and you can upset them easily with the brake. The more experience you get, you don't realize how much you're maturing. I think this finish today-- it took me a while to figure it out, but the end result was from another year's worth of experience and another four or five months worth of experience when we ran here earlier in the year."

Those last 40-50 laps, did you think about stepping up there and beating on the boss and moving him aside?
J.Johnson: "I knew that question was coming. Of course I want to pass him. Of course I want to put a bumper to him. I wouldn't have wrecked him, but that's what I'm out there to do. That's what we're all out there to do, race for the win. I'm racing him for points. I wouldn't have wrecked him, but I wish I could have gotten inside him and put on a good show and ended up the winner. That's all I had. At the end I had the brakes pretty hot and mad at me. I was afraid of blowing a right front, so I just kind of settled in with four to go and brought it home."

In talking with Jeff this week, did he give you any indication that he thought this was the weekend where he'd win again?
J.Johnson: "I know that every week he feels he has a shot at winning. This week, being at this track, I think his chances and his confidence is probably higher. As a teammate and a friend, I can tell you he doesn't get rattled by much, and by everything we've seen with his personal life and his career, you can't get inside his head and that's one of the big strengths Jeff Gordon has. As for him being under pressure, I don't see it. I haven't seen it. He's Jeff Gordon. He doesn't crack under pressure and sometimes when you count him out he steps back up."

Talk about what happened in turn 4 when you spun.
J.Johnson: "It just got bottle-necked and we were all trying to stop. I was going around the outside of Jamie McMurray and somebody tried wedging themselves between Jamie and the car that was spinning. We were essentially four or five wide and got clipped and turned around from that."

Of the top seven in the points standings, six of you finished in the top seven today. As a group, are you turning up the heat?
J.Johnson: "I think itís been pretty progressive here lately. Since the midway point, I think the top 10 in points has really been the way we've been finishing on the track and it's been pretty competitive. From my standpoint, I'm looking in the mirror behind me and I see Ryan Newman and Dale Jr. I think, 'oh great, I'm ahead of them and I'll gain a couple of points.' But in front of me is Jeff and I lost some to him, and I guess we're slowly chipping away at Matt's lead, but the top five or six in the points keep finishing that way on the track. I think it's going to continue to be like that. The final results in the championship are going to boil down to who doesn't make a mistake in the end. Everyone is too close in speed and too competitive to really run away with anything and make up a lot of ground on anyone."

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