TALLADEGA, Ala. -- The sounds echoing through the placid, rolling mountains surrounding Talladega Superspeedway yesterday were those of sheet metal rubbing and bumpers bumping, as Jeff Gordon bullied his way from third to first with five laps to go and then used every wile he had to hold on for victory in the DieHard 500.
"The only way I could have beaten him was to wreck him," said Winston Cup driver Mike Skinner, who put his Chevrolet's nose on Gordon's rear bumper time and again over the final two laps before finishing second, .189 of a second behind.
The racing was so outrageous that the majority of the cars ran three and four abreast for 50 and 100 miles at a stretch and included so much rough stuff that even the king of bump and grind and restrictor-plate racing, Dale Earnhardt, was irritated. But then, Earnhardt, the odds-on favorite to win his third straight race here, was forced to settle for third.
"You could not stay out front -- people were chunking you in the rear the entire race," he said after rallying from 15th to third over the last 50 laps. "The way people were knocking and bumping cars, it was as if they'd turned speedway racing into short-track racing at Martinsville."
It did seem that way. But the crowd of approximately 188,000 wasn't complaining. They went so far as to cheer Gordon -- the man they had loved to hate for the past three years -- with so much fervor that the three-time champion was stunned when he left the press box and found hundreds of them had waited more than 1 1/2 hours to cheer him wildly.
Gordon grinned a disbelieving smile.
"Golly," he said. "I thought I won this race."
He won, all right, and how he won.
Gordon, who started 36th, came from further back to win here than anyone had in 31 years. His screams of joy reverberated over his car's radio transmitter. No doubt, if his Chevrolet had had a horn, he would have been blasting it. It was his first victory since October 1999 at Charlotte and ended a 13-race losing streak, which had tied his career high.
This is Gordon's third victory without his renowned former crew chief, Ray Evernham, who left last season to lead Dodge's re-entry into the sport next season, and his first since hiring crew chief Robbie Loomis from Petty Enterprises.
It is also Gordon's 50th career victory, moving him into an eighth-place tie on NASCAR's all-time victory list with Ned Jarrett, Junior Johnson and Rusty Wallace.
And, finally, it extended the Winston Cup record for different winners at the start of the season to nine in nine races.
"I know it hadn't been forever since I won," Gordon said, wiping his eyes and claiming it was champagne, not tears. "But it was emotional for me. It had been awhile and we had to listen to a lot of things, a lot of criticism, and it takes a toll on you eventually.
"But I never lost faith in my team, and I knew if they kept their heads up through the criticism and kept working, we'd get to Victory Lane. But I am a little shocked that it came here."
Not only because his team is still coming together, but because of how this race went. The way to the front was through the middle.
"I'll say this," Gordon said of Earnhardt's remarks. "We were all very blessed and very fortunate it went the way it did. It could have gone very badly. The middle row was the place to go, and when that's the case, there is definitely something wrong with the picture.
"I wanted the inside lane because it's a little safer and because there are more options. And running the speeds we were running, to put the nose of my car between two other cars is not my way of choice. But that's what you had to do, and that's what I did and I'm amazed. I was shaking my head every lap in disbelief that nothing terrible happened."
There were, however, several fearful moments. On lap 138, Winston Cup rookie Scott Pruett collided with Robby Gordon and set of a chain reaction that sent 16 cars crashing in the tri-oval. Heart rates rose, but no one was seriously injured. And on lap 176, Robby Gordon's Ford went on a dizzying skid down pit road looking as if it would climb the short pit wall and endanger many crewmen. Almost miraculously, the car calmed itself. Instead of a nightmarish calamity, only one crewman was knocked down, and he was examined and released from the infield care center.
Nearly every driver complained that the smaller restrictor plates were the reason for all 43 cars being bunched tightly throughout the race, raising frustration levels and putting all at risk.
Because of continued complaints, NASCAR has scheduled a restrictor-plate test here today with the teams of car owners Richard Childress (Chevrolets) and Jack Roush (Fords) participating. The purpose is to try to find some way to slow the cars without the plates, which limit air to the engine and thereby curtail power.
"I hope they come up with something," said Gordon, who averaged 161.157 mph. "All of us want to get back where we can make slingshot passes and where you've got horsepower to really draft and do some things. I've never run without a restrictor plate. I don't know if that's the solution. But being stacked three wide like that, 15 rows back, I definitely vote for something a little bit different."
1. (36) Jeff Gordon, Chevy, 188, $159,755.
2. (8) Mike Skinner, Chevy, 188, $115,680.
3. (4) Dale Earnhardt, Chevy, 188, $92,630.
4. (12) Kenny Irwin, Chevy, 188, $86,280.
5. (20) Jimmy Spencer, Ford, 188, $76,665.
6. (5) Mark Martin, Ford, 188, $79,905.
7. (33) Terry Labonte, Chevy, 188, $69,450.
8. (7) Sterling Marlin, Chevy, 188, $59,930.
9. (21) Kyle Petty, Pontiac, 188, $57,580.
10. (9) Ward Burton, Pontiac, 188, $72,480.
11. (25) John Andretti, Pontiac, 188, $60,375.
12. (38) Jeff Burton, Ford, 188, $65,445.
13. (13) Johnny Benson, Pontiac, 188, $44,465.
14. (1) Jeremy Mayfield, Ford, 188, $56,685
15. (2) Bill Elliott, Ford, 188, $53,655.
16. (35) Wally Dallenbach Jr., Ford, 188, $42,915.
17. (3) Dale Jarrett, Ford, 187, $63,300.
18. (42) Matt Kenseth, Ford, 187, $50,260.
19. (30) Jerry Nadeau, Chevy, 187, $48,870.
20. (15) Scott Pruett, Ford, 187, $41,260.
21. (37) Bobby Labonte, Pontiac, 187, $57,470.
22. (24) Joe Nemechek, Chevy, 187, $47,950.
23. (19) Robert Pressley, Ford, 186, $39,640.
24. (18) Mike Bliss, Pontiac, 186, $36,010.
25. (14) Chad Little, Ford, 185, $47,505.
26. (43) Darrell Waltrip, Ford, 185, $38,825.
27. (10) Ricky Rudd, Ford, 182, $46,570.
28. (23) Ed Berrier, Ford, 178, $35,315.
29. (32) R. Craven, Chevy, 173, eng. failure, $35,160.
30. (16) D. Blaney, Pontiac, 151, accident, $35,005.
31. (11) Michael Waltrip, Chevy, 148, $46,350.
32. (41) Steve Park, Chevy, 145, $45,695.
33. (22) S. Compton, Ford, 140, accident, $37,665.
34. (39) T. Stewart, Pontiac, 138, accident, $53,835.
35. (29) Ted Musgrave, Ford, 137, accident, $34,305.
36. (40) K. Schrader, Pontiac, 137, accident, $34,175.
37. (34) R. Gordon, Ford, 136, accident, $34,015.
38. (27) D. Marcis, Chevy, 136, eng. failure, $33,675.
39. (31) D. Trickle, Chevy, 135, accident, $41,475.
40. (26) K. Wallace, Chevy, 130, eng. failure, $41,750.
41. (17) R. Wallace, Ford, 116, eng. failure, $51,050.
42. (6) D. Earnhardt Jr, Chevy, 113, eng. failure, $42,850.
43. (28) B. Hamilton, Chevy, 110, eng. failure, $40,656.
Time of race: 3 hours, 6 minutes, 11 seconds. Margin of victory: .189 of a second. Average speed: 161.157 mph. Lead changes: 27 among 10 drivers. Caution periods: 4 for 17 laps.
Winston Cup standings: Mark Martin 1,370, Bobby Labonte 1,346, Ward Burton 1,293, Dale Earnhardt 1,272, Jeff Burton 1,236, Dale Jarrett 1,167, Jeff Gordon 1,149, Rusty Wallace 1,129, Jeremy Mayfield 1,120, Terry Labonte 1,118.