August 17 – – After several shaky races over the summer, Jeff Gordon re-asserted himself with a strong 2nd place finish in the Carfax 400 at Michigan Speedway. Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte used the race as a preview for several Chase races — including the October race at California Speedway. If the performance at Michigan is any indication, Gordon will be a contender for the victory. However, there is still work to do to challenge reigning champion Jimmie Johnson, who dominated the Michigan race only to come up short on a fuel gamble for the second time this season at the 2-mile track. Brian Vickers and Gordon both ran the final 51 laps on a tank of fuel. Vickers took the checkered flag more than a second ahead of Gordon after Johnson pitted with 3 laps to go.
Gordon started 21st and dropped back to 25th in the opening laps while running the low line. As the tire pressures came up, Gordon moved forward. By lap 6, he was back up to 21st position. The caution flag waved for rain showers on lap 7, which resulted in a red flag. After a half hour delay, the cars returned to the track. Gordon pitted for fuel only under the caution flag and restarted in 16th place. He moved to 13th on lap 18 and set his sights on the top-10 as the field began stringing out. Gordon claimed 11th on lap 23 and moved into the top-10 on lap 26. Gordon took 9th from Martin Truex on lap 29 as his forward march continued. The leaders began pitting on lap 41, thus allowing Gordon to move up in the running order. Because he pitted earlier in the race, Gordon could stay on the track for additional laps, and inherited the lead on lap 44.
Gordon’s lead was short-lived as he pitted for tires and fuel on lap 45. After the pit stop sequence, Gordon ran in the 7th position. Robby Gordon’s cut tire on lap 54 brought out the second caution flag. Gordon opted for a two tire change and exited in 2nd place behind Matt Kenseth. He restarted in 3rd because Paul Menard did not pit. On the restart, Gordon moved up to 2nd behind Kenseth. Jimmie Johnson took the runner-up position on lap 62, and Mark Martin pushed Gordon back to 4th on lap 70 as four tires played out its advantage. By lap 88, Gordon dropped to 7th place due to the older tires on the left side of the car. Gordon came to pit road on lap 97 for a four-tire change complete with a track bar adjustment.
Gordon cycled through the pit stop sequence and held onto the 7th spot. He moved up to 5th at the halfway point as the handling improved on the car. On lap 107, he took 4th from Clint Bowyer. A debris caution slowed the field on lap 115 and brought the leaders to pit road. Gordon, who took four tires, departed in 7th place due to several drivers taking two tires. On the restart, David Ragan got loose coming off turn two just behind Gordon. Ragan spun sideways and collected Kurt Busch who impacted the retaining wall on the backstretch. On lap 132, Gordon pulled low in turn one to take 6th from Tony Stewart. The caution waved one lap later for Ragan’s spin on the frontstretch. The restart on lap 140 saw Gordon take off from the outset. He moved to 4th within one lap, and took 3rd from Martin on lap 143. Two laps later he passed Kenseth for the runner-up spot. A passing shower brought the caution flag out on lap 146.
Pit stops ensued and Gordon lost 9 spots after taking four tires. He restarted in 16th due to six cars staying on the track. Gordon moved up to 15th on lap 154, but was distantly behind the leaders due to the field stringing out. David Stremme’s talent evaporation for the second consecutive weekend brought out the caution flag on lap 157. Gordon stayed on the track to gain track position — at the expense of having plenty of fuel to make it to the end if the race went green. Gordon restarted in 8th place and used a strong run on the outside line to take 6th on lap 161. He took 5th from Kenseth with 35 laps to go. Two laps later, Gordon moved around Kevin Harvick to take 4th place. With 30 to go, he passed Martin and moved up to 3rd. Johnson ran out of fuel with 3 laps to go and handed the lead to Brian Vickers. Gordon moved up to 2nd but distantly trailed Vickers at the white flag. Vickers took the checkered flag for the first time since his last lap victory at Talladega in 2006. Both Vickers and Gordon ran the last 51 laps on a tank of fuel. Gordon moved up to 2nd in the points standings due to Johnson’s 33rd place finish after the late stop for fuel. “I knew I saved a lot leaving pit road,” Gordon said. “I feel like that got us a lap. When the caution came out, I shut the engine off and got another one. We wanted to conserve a little, but then Dale Jr started coming really hard.”
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“It was a really good run. I mean, we started 21st. Just slowly but surely worked our way up to the front. We got in the top five there that one time. We took two tires. That got us a little bit behind. We were playing a little bit of catch up from that point on. We had a good car. We didn’t have the best car. But like you saw today, the best car doesn’t always win. We did everything we could to get the best finish we could. I really felt confident we were going to make it, even though Steve told me we were four short when we left pit road that last pit stop. I shut the engine off so much. I felt like I got us six laps. At least with the caution, I felt like I did. Felt pretty confident I didn’t have to conserve a whole lot. Dale Jr was pressuring me a lot at the end. I was waiting, to see if the 43 and 83 ran out. One did, one didn’t.”
Q. Jeff, very early in the race, lap 27 or 30, it seems you and Mark Martin were running identical speeds. What was your setup? How is the information sharing among your teammates?
A. “The information sharing is fantastic. Felt like this weekend we came really well prepared with our notes from the last race and the run that we had and our teammates. I mean, we all have our different driving styles, likes and dislikes. You rarely ever start with the same setup. But I would say that we were pretty close to the 5 and the 48. I felt like we ran about like them. We weren’t able to maintain the track position that one time we got it, because we were on two tires instead of four. I felt like we were one of the best cars on fresh tires, then we’d really get tight. Those guys were maybe just a little bit freer than us and better than us in the long run. I felt like the three of us were really close. There at the beginning I saw Dale Jr get real loose. I don’t know about where they were with their setup, but I know they had to make some big adjustments. I was pretty impressed that they were saying, Hey, the 88 is the car to beat, he’s coming hard and fast. Obviously they made some good adjustments. I’d say we all had really good cars, and probably not too far off on the setups.”
Q. Jeff, how is the back? Second now in Sprint Cup points with three races to go before the Chase.
A. “My back is fine. I would rather be third in points right now and had that win today. That’s all that really matters at this point for us. We’re having a great year. We’re showing that we’re strong, a great team. I just would like to have a few more bonus points going into the Chase, a little bit more momentum. This certainly is going to help towards the momentum if we can go to Bristol next week and keep putting a strong finish out there and effort. That’s going to mean as much to me as anything.”