Archive for Thursday, April 19, 2007

Close encounters ruin Cup-star duel

Gordon, Junior battled through 269 laps, but misfortune kept both out of Victory Lane

April 19, 2007


There they were Sunday afternoon, the two gaudiest names in racing, chasing each other into the turns at 180 miles an hour.

Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Or, depending on whose 18-inch decal is mounted on the window of your Chevy Silverado, Earnhardt and Gordon.

The fire-engine red, No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet racing for the lead against Gordon's rainbow-splashed car No. 24.

The spellbound audience of 191,000 at Texas Motor Speedway, most of them standing, screaming for the other driver's blood.

Not literally, of course. But knowing how fans of Junior feel about the slick Gordon, I wouldn't have been surprised.

For 269 of the Samsung 500's 334 laps Sunday, either Earnhardt or Gordon led the race. It was like Ali fighting Frazier. Jordan against Bird. The Montagues vs. the Capulets.

A pair of star-crossed drivers, as it turned out. Alas, neither Earnhardt nor Gordon dodged the wall or the competition well enough Sunday to make it to Victory Lane.

If you've been scoring along at home - and surely all fans of Junior have - you know that Gordon, despite his 75 career Nextel Cup victories, has never won at Texas Motor Speedway.

He has lost here with good cars and, by his own admission, not-so-good cars.

In 1999, Gordon slammed into the wall on the frontstretch here, a wreck that he has called the "hardest hit" he has ever sustained on a race track.

Jinxed? How can a guy who has won more than $83 million on the Cup circuit be considered jinxed?

But he's due here. Way overdue.

And after Sunday's disappointing finish - fourth place, despite leading for 173 laps - you have to wonder why the racing gods in Texas seem to take delight in frustrating Jeff Gordon.

Having wrested the lead from Earnhardt, Gordon seemed ready to cruise the final 31 laps to the house, when his No. 24 car bumped the wall hard coming out of Turn 4.

"I hit the wall," Gordon explained later. "It was a stupid mistake."

Junior's misfortunes, on the other hand, chased him down from behind. He held the lead for 81 laps Sunday, when suddenly Tony Stewart lurched into a slow, smoky, 360-degree spin coming out of Turn 4. Driver Kyle Busch, who was behind Stewart, clipped the back of Earnhardt's car. You could hear the crowd gasp.

The Bud car was never the same after that.

Earnhardt chugged home, officially in 36th place. Gordon's car, which at times Sunday appeared to be the best in the field, was clearly slowed after its bump in Turn 4, and he had to settle for fourth.

And what looked for a while as if it was going to be the most high-profile, crowd-pleasing duel to the finish in TMS Cup history ended, instead, with a final-lap dash won by Jeff Burton over Matt Kenseth.

Oh, well.

So much for marquee finishes.

For most of the afternoon Sunday, the end of Jeff Gordon's Texas drought appeared to be within sight.


The curse of no repeat winners was broken but The Jeff Gordon Jinx lives on.


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