Gordon ends streak in duel with Wallace

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR Staff

   BRISTOL -- 31 races after it started, Jeff Gordon's winless streak ended in dramatic fashion.
   Jeff Gordon pushed by Rusty Wallace on lap 498 in a duel reminiscent of a ending five years ago to win the Sharpie 500 Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.
   The two most prolific winners racing in the Winston Cup Series, with a combined 103 race victories, added another chapter to their rich racing history. The bump and run move Gordon used to get by Wallace was identical to one four years earlier on the last lap of Bristol's spring event.
   "He got bottled up in traffic and I was able to get to him," said Gordon about the winning pass. "When I got to him, he shut the door on me. When he shut the door on me, he was fair game. I got into him a little bit and he got loose.
   "I had to take advantage of the opportunity. My car was good all night long and the team deserved a win. Thank God, that streak is over. It's been an amazing night. I feel like it was the first time I ever won."
   Wallace, denied a tenth victory at Bristol, commented: "It was the same thing he did to me three or four years ago. There wasn't a chance in hell, he would have passed me if he wouldn't have bumped me. I knew he was going to get into me. I just hoping it wasn't going to happen.
   "That's just racing I guess. It's been a long time since I won, but it's been a long time since Jeff won too and I know he wanted it real bad too."
   Third place went to Dale Earnhardt, Jr. with fourth place honors going to Kevin Harvick. Matt Kenseth beat Kurt Busch in a battle of Roush Racing teammates for the fifth and sixth positions.
   Running down the action, Earnhardt bolted past Gordon into the lead on lap 1 from his outside pole position and held onto the top spot for the first 130 trips around the high-banked oval.
   Behind him raged a fierce battle between Gordon and Wallace. After Wallace made the strong early charge moving up from fourth to second, Gordon got back by Wallace on lap 111. Gordon continued his march forward taking over the lead from Earnhardt as the cars entered turn one on lap 131.
   Gordon continued his stranglehold on the number one spot for the next 116 laps, as Jimmy Spencer advanced to second under the first round of pit stops. Earnhardt fell to fourth, but soon powered by both Spencer and Wallace to close on the leader. On the 247th lap, Earnhardt ended Gordon's reign at the head of the field passing off turn two.
   Gordon returned the favor nine laps later, reassuming the role of leader. The two stayed nose to tail until the yellow came out for Steve Park's spin on lap 290. Earnhardt fell to seventh after servicing the car, while Ward Burton moved up to the second position.
   On the ensuing restart, Jeremy Mayfield and Dale Jarrett made contact causing a nine-car accident that dashed the hopes of Labonte.
   Johnny Benson took over the top spot on lap 373 when all the leaders pitted. Busch raced by on lap 388, looking to sweep BMS events. He held the lead until the 433rd circuit when Kenseth passed for his first lead of the night.
   Another lead change occurred just 11 laps later, when Harvick put his Goodwrench Chevrolet in front. Wallace, on fresher tires, took the lead on lap 482, before losing it in the final battle with Gordon.
   Coming through the traffic was worrisome to the leaders. "Those guys pitted at 150 (laps to go)," said Wallace. "We came back out eighth or ninth and it looked to be tough getting to the front. But our car was strong as it was all night long. When I took the lead, I saw all those lapped cars. I just wish they would have gotten out of the way. That doggone lapped car, that 25, I just couldn't get around him. He kept running in the racing groove instead of moving up out of the way."
   Showing a ton of horsepower in the first 250 laps was the entry of Tony Stewart, the defending race champ. Stewart improved from a 26th starting position to the sixth spot at the halfway point of the race. Stewart's night soured on lap 411 when he rammed the back of Jerry Nadeau's car under caution. The contact broke an oil line on Stewart's machine which relegated the No. 20 to a disappointing 24th place finish, three laps down.
   Cautions were prevalent throughout the car-crunching event with the yellow flag flying on 15 occasions for 118 laps.
   The first of the slowdown periods came on lap 6 when the car of Todd Bodine got loose off turn two and smacked the inside retaining wall. Steve Park and Lance Hooper spun in efforts to avoid the accident. Ten laps later, Bodine hit the inside retaining wall on the backstretch at nearly the same spot to bring out the second caution. The early incidents concluded with Elliott Sadler doing a replay of the Bodine's antics, making hard contact with the inside wall after Joe Nemechek got out of control and into Sadler.
   Arguably the hardest hits of the night came on a couple of accidents involving Bill Davis-owned Dodges. Jeremy Mayfield repaid an earlier bump from Hut Stricklin on lap 348 that sent the No. 23 Dodge careening off the turn three wall. There was almost an instant replay 55 circuits later, when Earnhardt pushed Burton into the wall at the same spot as the two were racing for position. Burton showed his displeasure bouncing his foot shields off the Budweiser Chevrolet.
   Burton remarked, "I wished I had something I could have shot through the window."
   Earnhardt insisted the wreck wasn't on purpose, "I was real disappointed that happened. I don't keep it secret when I wreck somebody. I don't do it often and for sure, Ward should have known that wasn't intentional.
   "He made a real abrupt entry going into turn three and I checked up and couldn't get out from under him to help from spinning him out. I did everything I could. What else am I supposed to do? I know he's upset and he showed his emotions real colorful. I didn't mind. I like Ward and I've never had a problem with him."
   Sterling Marlin added to his lead in the NASCAR point standings before the tour heads to historic Darlington Raceway next weekend. Marlin got out of sequence with race leaders at the 58-lap mark opting to take on fresh tires. The strategy didn't work out as the jack from the No. 40 team went sailing down pit road landing in the Ricky Craven pit stall. Marlin was assessed a stop and go penalty sending him to the back of the lead lap.
   Marlin recovered from the early mistake to post a seventh place finish, while nearest title rivals Mark Martin and rookie Jimmie Johnson lost ground in an accident caused by Robby Gordon hitting the back of Johnson's car and sending it into Martin's Ford. Martin wound up 23rd, putting him 95 points in a rears. Johnson fell back even further placing 34th in the final rundown after and falling 145 markers behind. The rookie racer fell to fifth in the Winston Cup standings.
   Gordon moved to third in the title chase only 111 markers back of Marlin and 16 back of second place Martin.
   It was Gordon's fifth victory on the .533-mile raceway and his first in Bristol's night after leading a race high 235 laps. Gordon leads all active drivers on the Winston Cup tour with 59 career wins, good enough for sixth place on NASCAR's all-time win list.