CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — Jeff Gordon staked his claim to the Nextel Cup title Saturday night, winning his second straight race to widen his lead in the Chase for the championship standings.
The four-time series champion led Kyle Busch on a restart with five laps to go at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, but as he tried to hold off his teammate, Ryan Newman slid by both Hendrick Motorsports cars to grab the lead.
Newman seemed to be headed to an easy win, but inexplicably spun while running by himself to bring out the caution. Gordon inherited the lead, but had a fuel issue that had him stressed about a pickup problem when the race resumed for a two-lap overtime finish.
But Gordon’s Chevrolet was flawless on the final start, and he pulled away from Clint Bowyer and Busch for his first win at the suburban Charlotte track since 1999.
“Man that was awesome! To win at Charlotte!” he yelled over his radio.
The speedway had vexed him for several years, even though Gordon notched the first of his 81 career victories back in 1994 at the track and picked up three more wins along the way. Although he had struggled at Lowe’s of late — he was 41st in May — he turned it around when everything was on the line.
On a night when teammate Jimmie Johnson had an uncharacteristic spin, Gordon was nearly flawless as he beat Bowyer to the finish line by 0.579 seconds to win his sixth race of the season and second straight. Gordon also won last week at Talladega Superspeedway, and with five races to go in the Chase, he widened his lead in the points from nine at the start of the night to 68 points over Johnson.
Bowyer finished second to maintain third in the standings, 78 points out.
Busch was third, and gained two spots in the Chase standings, but is still sixth and 280 points out. Jeff Burton was fourth and followed by Carl Edwards, Dave Blaney and Tony Stewart as Chase drivers took six of the first seven spots.
Johnson, a five-time winner here, led three times for a race-high 95 laps and appeared to be headed to Victory Lane yet again at the track his team considers its own personal playground.
But he had an uncharacteristic error, spinning his Chevrolet late in the race when he ran too close to the wall and his car went skidding across the track and into the grass. The spin stunned a field that is used to Johnson being flawless here, but that he managed to keep the damage to a minimum was just as impressive.
“He kept if off everything!” teammate Kyle Busch yelled. “I saw it! Saw the whole thing. Unbelievable.”
Johnson wasn’t so sure, and crew chief Chad Knaus tried to settle him down.
“It’s not bad, man, we’re going to be fine,” he told the driver.
Indeed, the damage was minimal. But it prevented Johnson from racing for the win and he settled for a 14th-place finish.
The race was almost a disaster for Stewart, who was clinging to his title hopes at the start of the night, and it was awful for Matt Kenseth, who was pretty much eliminated from contention before his many misadventures.
Stewart’s car was off early, and his Joe Gibbs Racing team needed more than 100 laps to get him moving toward the front of the field. But his night was ruined during a mid-race pit stop, when he nearly collided with Paul Menard as he exited his stall, had to drive around him and moved directly into Kasey Kahne’s path.
The two cars collided and Stewart’s Chevrolet suffered enough damage to force him back to pit road for numerous repairs. He was furious after, complaining to his crew that “31 … guys that aren’t in this (Chase) can dictate it.”
Although he eeked out the seventh-place finish, he dropped from 154 points out of the lead at the start of the night to 198 out.
Kenseth came into the race in 11th-place in the standings, then had three separate incidents ruin his run: He spun early through the grass and into the wall to cause slight damage to his Ford, then later was hit by John Andretti as he slowed for a caution, and finally spun and hit the wall hard because his handling was off from the earlier incidents.
He wound up 34th, and is 442 points out.
Kevin Harvick also had a long night because of an early tire problem, but the crew guessed incorrectly on which tires were in trouble and had to stop twice to fix the issue. It put him two laps down very early in the race, he never recovered and finished 33rd. It dropped him three spots in the standings to eighth and he’s 328 points out.