Last Rites Of The Season

HOMESTEAD, FLA.- - The final race of the 2003 season is the Miami 400 at the redesigned Homestead-Miami Speedway. Construction over the summer increased the banking in the corners from 6 degrees to a variable 18-20 degrees. With the points championship having been clinched last week by Matt Kenseth, the only uncertainty is over which driver will go to which team for 2004 and which driver will finish second in the standings? Jimmie Johnson had the inside track going into the final race with Dale Earnhardt Jr, Ryan Newman, and Jeff Gordon all with mathematical hopes of claiming the runner-up spot. However, Johnson's effort on Sunday would leave no doubt as he posted a strong third place finish to lock up the #2 spot for 2003.

Wednesday - Open Test Session
NASCAR allowed the teams to have an open test session at the track on Wednesday with electronic telemetry for data acquisition on the cars. "It's a lot different," crew chief Robbie Loomis said after Wednesday's test session. "Fortunately, we get to do some testing to kind of figure out where we are. We're really tight middle and pretty good entering and exiting, but the middle of the corner is like a timing gun: a point. It's giving us some pretty good challenges right now. It's one of the most unique tracks I've been to. We kind of looked at Chicago and Kansas City kind of fell in between. Right now, we're having to tune for Homestead." No official speeds were released, but the teams ran more than 20 miles per hour faster than the previous track record. Unofficially Johnny Benson had the fast lap of the day at 177.63 miles per hour. Following Benson closely on the unofficial speed chart were Dale Earnhardt Jr, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, and Jimmie Johnson. The track record set last year during qualifying is 154.35 miles per hour. The session was shortened by two hours due to afternoon showers.

Friday - Qualifying Day
Jeff Gordon turned the fastest lap in Friday morning's 11am practice session and drew the 19th spot in the qualifying order. A pole position was a definite possibility. However, his qualifying lap of 180.21 was good enough for fifth on the starting grid. Nevertheless, it is his highest career starting position at Homestead and will give him a decent pit selection for Sunday's race.

Jeff Gordon's post-qualifying comments: "It's hard to adjust to the track when you're practicing that early in the morning. We have an awesome car but it wasn't good enough when the sun came out and the grip went away. I talked to Jimmie Johnson and Brian Vickers before I went out and I knew what to expect. I tried to compensate for it but the car didn't have the balance and the grip. When we were testing on Wednesday we were really starting to gain on it right before the rain came. I feel good-- I showed up today and the car was on rails. I thought we had a shot at the pole today. I'm a little disappointed right now that we didn't get it. But I know we still have a good car for the rest of the weekend."

Saturday - Final practices
Jeff Gordon was 20th in the first practice session which began at 8:30 am. The session concluded at 9:20 with Ryan Newman posting the fastest lap. Most teams used the early session to scuff tires for Sunday's race.
In the final practice session, Newman once again posted the fastest single lap. Gordon was sixth fastest but complained about a lack of grip in the corners. The crew made several wedge and track bar adjustments to try to improve the handling of the car.

Sunday - Race Day
The 2003 racing season was good to the last lap. After dominating the 400-mile race at Homstead-Miami Speedway, Bill Elliott cut a tire coming off turn two on the final lap. Bobby Labonte took the lead on the backstretch to win his second race of the season and 21st of his career. Elliott faded back to eighth place at the line. Jeff Gordon took advantage of early crash which eliminated Ryan Newman from contention to move up to fourth in the final points standings with an arduous fifth place finish. Gordon was never a contender for the lead, but ran consistently in the top-ten throughout the day. He battled a tight handling condition and made some gambles on pit road for track position. He was running a distant sixth when Elliott's tire problem on the final lap allowed him to score a top-five finish. It was also Gordon's 20th top-ten finish of the season-- his ninth consecutive season with at least 20 top-ten finishes. Gordon finished fourth in the point standings for the second consecutive season.

The final race started off with a bang as Kevin Harvick tried to make a daring three-wide pass on Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch coming off turn two on the second lap. Harvick got loose and went up the track into Newman who slid into Busch knocking both into the wall. Harvick escaped from the melee with only minor cosmetic damage on the right side of car. He would recover to finish second to race winner Labonte. On lap 12 Gordon took the lead from Brian Vickers with a strong run off turn four. However, the lead would be short-lived as Rusty Wallace passed Gordon to take the top spot on lap 16. By lap 25 Gordon had dropped to eighth battling handling issues with his car. The caution waved on lap 29 for Matt Kenseth's blown engine. The 2003 champion posted a last place finish in the final race of the year. The caution brought the field to pit road and Gordon restarted in 10th place. He made little headway and was running eighth when the caution waved on lap 74 after Michael Waltrip cut a tire and hit the wall.

On the day there were numerous instances of cut tires. Though Goodyear had a tire test at the track in October, the combination of new asphalt and an abundance of grip hindered many teams. Gordon restarted 7th on lap 79 and made three green flag laps before the caution waved on lap 82 for Jeff Green's engine problem. On the next restart Gordon slipped back to 13th as his was tight in race traffic. He was running 12th on lap 121 when Vickers cut a tire and slammed the wall in turn one. Gordon came onto pit road in 12th and gained four positions on pit exit. Another caution came out on lap 142 after debris from Jeremy Mayfield's cut tire came to rest in the racing groove on the backstretch. Gordon took two tires on pit road and restarted in fifth position.

A tense moment came on lap 154 when Tony Stewart dove low to pass Gordon on the backstretch. Realizing he was in the middle of a potential four-wide pack heading into turn three, Gordon wisely eased off the throttle before a mid-race melee could ensue. Over the next 40 laps he dropped back to 9th battling a tight condition. A caution for Greg Biffle's cut tire on lap 199 brought the leaders to pit road for the final time. Gordon came off pit road in seventh place. The next caution came just one lap after racing resumed as Joe Nemechek spun coming off turn four. On the restart on lap 215, Bill Elliott closed the gap on leader Tony Stewart. He passed Stewart for the race lead one lap later. Meanwhile, in traffic, Gordon lost sixth place to Jimmie Johnson with 43 laps to go.

With 24 laps remaining, Mark Martin got loose on the inside of Ward Burton entering turn one and spun out. Both Martin and Burton were eliminated from contention having suffered through miserable 2003 seasons. Gordon restarted in sixth place with 18 laps remaining after Stewart pitted from third place. The final caution came out with 15 laps remaining for Ricky Rudd's blown engine. The single-file restart with 9 laps remaining saw Elliott pull away from second place Labonte. Behind the leaders, Kevin Harvick, making a final push for the win, passed Johnson to move up to third. On the final lap, Elliott's tire came apart coming off turn two forcing him to slow down. Labonte took the lead and the victory as Elliott faded to eighth place.

The 2003 season came to a close with Matt Kenseth being crowned the champion. Due to his last place finish at Homestead, the final gap to second place Jimmie Johnson was 90 points. Dale Earnhardt Jr posted his best career points finish coming in third, while Gordon and Harvick staged a battle for fourth. Newman, eliminated on lap two at Homestead, finished a distant sixth in points after coming into the final race in the fourth points position.

Jeff Gordon's Post-Race Comments:
"We had a great day. We finished fourth in points. Jimmie stayed in second in points. I'm really proud of everybody at Hendrick Motorsports. I have to thank all those guys at our facility. All around it was a great effort. We'll be back next year and try to do it again."

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