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Gordon battles back for victory

Bobby Labonte (43) suffered mechanical failure on lap 145 leading to a crash that ncluded Matt Kenseth (17) and Kyle Busch (5).
Bobby Labonte (43) suffered mechanical failure on lap 145 leading to a crash that ncluded Matt Kenseth (17) and Kyle Busch (5).
Dale Davis, Associated Press

TALLADEGA, Ala. — Jeff Gordon surged past Jimmie Johnson on the final lap at Talladega Superspeedway then held off his teammate Sunday to become the career victory leader at restrictor-plate tracks.

Gordon, who scored his 12th victory on a plate track, used the win to move back on top of the points standings with six races remaining in the Chase for the championship. He leads Johnson by nine points.

But the four-time series champion had a bizarre race by his standards, electing to run near the back of the pack to avoid projected hairy racing conditions created by the Car of Tomorrow.

Gordon had a horrible qualifying effort — he started 34th — and it put him at the back and he never tried to move too far to the front. He then suffered a late-race setback when he pulled out of his pit with a hose hanging from his car, earning a pass-through penalty that seemed to take him out of contention.

"That was the hardest three-quarters of a race that I've ever had to run before," he said. "Our qualifying determined what our strategy was going to be, and we laid in the back."

But Gordon is the best at working the draft, and he'd moved into the top 15 as the race neared its completion. With six laps to go, he was in the middle of a Hendrick Motorsports charge that saw Johnson, Gordon and Casey Mears surge to the front of the pack.

Gordon was stuck behind Johnson, though, and waited until the last lap to make a move toward the front. He finally jumped up high, squeezing in between Johnson and the Penske cars of Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch.

Just as Johnson tried to block him, two-time series champion Tony Stewart slid onto Gordon's bumper and gave him a huge push into the lead. Johnson couldn't get by him again, and Gordon crossed the finish line for his sixth win of the season.

He led just one lap — the last one — to complete a season sweep at Talladega.

"We avoided the wrecks, and all of a sudden found ourselves in the top 15 with about 25-30 to go, and we held on there," Gordon said. "What I don't understand is how I got by my teammate."

Johnson finished second; Dave Blaney was third in the best finish this year for a Toyota driver. Title contender Denny Hamlin was fourth and was followed by Ryan Newman, who was leading late in his Dodge, and Mears.

Chase driver Kurt Busch was seventh and Stewart, who was in position to win this race very late, had two strategic moves backfire and was shuffled back to eighth.

This race blew open the Chase for the championship standings, as Gordon and Johnson positioned themselves for a Hendrick battle toward the title. Third-place driver Clint Bowyer finished 11th, but fell 63 points behind the leader.

Stewart, the two-time series champion, dropped 154 points out, and everyone else is more than 200 points behind.

The entire industry was tense about this race leading up to the green flag because of a combination of the use of the Car of Tomorrow and the debut of former Formula One champion Jacques Villeneuve, who many believed picked the wrong track to make his first start.

But Villeneuve, who qualified sixth, dropped to the very back of the pack at the start and stayed out of everyone's way as he quietly finished 21st.

And the garagewide fear of multiple wrecks because of dangerous driving conditions everyone expected from the CoT didn't materialize until the first big accident with 44 laps to go. And that was more of a fluke than it was a product of Talladega's treacherous racing — Bobby Labonte had some sort of mechanical failure that caused his car to squirt down the track and into Chase driver Kyle Busch.

The issues with the engines, built by both Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Richard Childress Racing, put a fear in the other five teams who use the same motors and it came true when Earnhardt's blew up.

Earnhardt, trying to end a 55-race winless streak in his final event at DEI with crew chief Tony Eury Jr., was relegated to a 40th-place finish after leading 31 laps early. Eury is moving to Hendrick Motorsports next week to prepare for Junior's arrival at the end of the season.

"We had a good car, we led some, we got the people on their feet. I thought we could win it," Earnhardt said. "I'm sad for Martin more than anything. We have a gremlin in there."

Chase Point Standings

1. Jeff Gordon, 5,690.

2. Jimmie Johnson, 5,681.

3. Clint Bowyer, 5,627

4. Tony Stewart, 5,536

5. Kevin Harvick, 5,488

6. Carl Edwards, 5,485

7. Kurt Busch, 5,475

8. Kyle Busch, 5,430

9. Denny Hamlin, 5,428

10. Marting Truex Jr., 5,390

11. Matt Kenseth, 5,372

12. Jeff Burton, 5,354