KANSAS CITY, KAN. If American was the predominant flag flying over the NASCAR Winston Cup race last weekend in Dover, Del., caution was the banner most aflutter in the breeze Sunday at Kansas Speedway.
A week after Dover was painted red, white and blue in the patriotic fervor surrounding the resumption of the NASCAR season after the terrorist attacks, Cup Series points leader Jeff Gordon survived 13 caution periods including a red-flag cold start with six laps to go to win the Protection One 400 before 75,000 fans Sunday at Kansas City's new speedway.
"I hated to see some of the cautions and some of the wrecks we had today," said Gordon, who won the six-lap sprint to edge runner-up rookie Ryan Newman and Cup Series runner-up Ricky Rudd.
One of the yellow flags helped Gordon claim his sixth win of the season, his third inaugural race on a new course and the 58th victory of his career.
During a caution with 33 laps to go, leader Rusty Wallace was penalized for speeding on pit road. He was forced to serve a stop-and-go penalty, and Rudd moved to second and Gordon came out fifth.
Wallace rallied but still finished sixth.
"I wasn't surprised. Rusty's always pushing the limits on pit road," Gordon said. "You'd think a guy who'd been caught for that a number of times would back off a little bit, but you can't fault him. He was doing what he needed to do to win the race."
In Gordon's mind, the penalty played a huge role in his victory.
"I was just biding my time waiting 'till the end," said Gordon, who claimed $254,377 for the victory. "Unfortunately, we had that penalty on Rusty. Had Rusty not had that penalty, I don't know if anybody was going to catch him.
"All day I felt I was about a third-place car, Rusty being one of the best and Bill Elliott being one of the best."
Elliott's car broke on lap 134 and he had to settle for 40th place. He was one of 11 drivers who didn't finish.
One who did finish with a flourish was Newman, a rookie who's racing an "ABC" schedule. He has raced ARCA, Busch Series and Cup races this season.
Newman caught Rudd with four laps to go but never seriously challenged Gordon for the lead.
"I got by Ricky Rudd and thought we had a car that could, if not get by Gordon, stay with him," Newman said, "and if he slipped up, I would have tried to get by him. It was definitely gratifying, finishing second to a champion like Jeff."
What made his finish even more impressive was the fact that Newman was racing a backup car. He crashed his primary car in practice and rolled out his ARCA backup car for Sunday's race.
"We had a lot of pressure, but it was pressure I put on myself," Newman said. "It was really a strong run for us as a team."
Newman, who tested at Kansas Speedway and who won the pole for the ARCA race last spring, said his familiarity with the track helped Sunday.
"It's definitely an advantage," Newman said, "as much for the team as it was for me. You know what the race car likes. Whether it's an ARCA car or a Busch car or a Cup car, a fast line is a fast line."
The 13 caution periods covered 70 of the race's 267 laps. Most drivers blamed the high incident count to Kansas Speedway's new surface, narrow groove and hard Goodyear tires.
"It's partially part of it being a new racetrack, and not just the surface but the drivers getting used to it," Newman said.
"It was starting to get an outside groove," added Gordon. "I believe next time we come back, the outside groove will start to come out. It's like a fine wine. Other than that, it's phenomenal, one of the best on the circuit."
Rudd, who trails Gordon, 4,108 points to 3,886, in the Winston Cup Series, thinks he was hurt more than most drivers by the frequent restarts Sunday.
"All of a sudden, the rush of caution flags really hurt us," Rudd said. "The more cautions we got at the end, the worse it got. We were playing defense the rest of the day."