HAMPTON, Ga. – Jeff Gordon overcame a late-race tire vibration and held off a hard-charging Jimmie Johnson to score the win on Tuesday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. With the victory, Gordon now owns 85 career NASCAR Sprint Cup victories and ranks third on the all-time win list.
Gordon’s victory – his third of the 2011 Cup season –assures his spot in the top-10 for the upcoming Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and moves Hendrick Motorsports closer to the 200-win milestone. The organization now owns 198 Cup victories and ranks first in NASCAR’s modern era for wins and second all-time behind Petty Enterprises, which has 268 victories.
“I think this is turning out to be a great year,” said Gordon, who led a race-high 146 laps on Tuesday and now ranks fifth in the driver standings. “Alan (Gustafson, crew chief), all our engineers and the guys that work so hard, the awesome pit crew -- those last two stops were just money, and we’re having a lot of fun right now. When you can drive a race car that drives like that one, it makes me look like a hero, but they’re the heroes in my mind.
“Eighty-five (wins). Wow. That is unbelievable. I’m just blown away at the kind of day we had, the kind of year we’re having. I just feel rejuvenated in such a big way because of this race team, and these race cars I get to drive. Man. Eighty-five. I can’t wait to get home and celebrate with these guys.”
The Cup event at Atlanta was rescheduled from Sunday to Tuesday after inclement weather permeated the area. When the green flag finally fell, all four Hendrick Motorsports teams went through various handling adjustments to perfect their Chevrolets and each ultimately finished inside the top 19. Gordon went to Victory Lane, while his teammates Johnson took second, Mark Martin 17th and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 19th.
Gordon opened Tuesday’s race from the fifth position and claimed the lead within the first 46 laps. He led five times for 98 laps within the first 162 circuits. But as the race unfolded, the handling of Gordon’s Chevy went away and the team worked to make the proper adjustments. He lined up next to Johnson during the final 85 laps on the second row and battled fiercely inside the top five. Gordon rattled off some of the fastest lap times during the closing segments of the race and eventually took the lead back from Johnson with 50 laps to go when he developed a vibration in his No. 24 Chevy.
Gustafson negotiated with Gordon when he reported the issue and asked his driver to wait 10 laps before pitting. While Gordon was battling his vibration, Johnson opted to hit pit road and take four tires and fuel. Gordon followed suit on the next circuit, getting his No. 24 Chevrolet serviced for the final green-flag run. Gordon barely slipped by Johnson after the pit stop and returned among the leaders. Within the next laps, Gordon was leading the field. He held on coming to the white flag with Johnson fast approaching.
Johnson took runner-up honors and now becomes the leader in the driver standings, but he was shaking from the adrenaline rush when he exited his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet on Tuesday.
“I’m so glad I grew up racing in the dirt,” Johnson said. “If I didn’t grow up racing around all these deserts and dirt tracks, I think I would have spun out four or five times at the end. Great effort for this Lowe’s team. We started off the race really bad, but we kept working on it. I’m very happy for Hendrick Motorsports.”
Martin and Earnhardt’s teams also worked on their Chevrolets throughout the race, improving dramatically from their starting spots. Martin lined up his No. 5 CARQUEST Auto Parts/GoDaddy.com Chevrolet in 32nd and improved to cross the finish line 17th. He ranks 19th in the driver standings.
Earnhardt, driver of the No. 88 National Guard Military Intelligence/AMP Energy Chevrolet, scored 19th after lining up 29th for Tuesday’s race. He remains ninth in the standings, poised for a spot inside this year's Chase. One race remains -- Saturday night's run at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway -- before the field is finally set.