TALLADEGA, Ala. - Jeff Gordon was laughing, loving it, as he drove to victory through a hailstorm of beer cans, many of them full, thrown onto the track by furious legions of Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans yesterday.
A controversial call by NASCAR officials with three laps remaining in the Aaron's 499 gave the lead back to Gordon after Earnhardt passed him just a moment after a caution flag came out. The race finished under that yellow, denying Earnhardt any chance to retake the lead.
There couldn't have been a worse scenario for the red-clad Earnhardt fans who were dominant in a crowd of about 200,000 at Talladega Superspeedway. Gordon has long been their primary antagonist.
And as Gordon cruised slowly to his unstoppable win behind the pace car, the Earnhardt crowd stewed. The first wave of debris came as he took the white flag signaling one lap remaining. Some fans were removed by police and security guards, because throwing objects onto a racetrack brings automatic ejection.
But while law enforcement was occupied with the initial offenders, the real storm of frothing cans broke loose as Gordon drove to the checkered flag, punctuated by thousands of middle fingers extended in his direction.
If only they'd known how gleeful this made their nemesis, they'd have been twice as enraged.
"When they were throwing that stuff, it made me laugh, and I was enjoying the moment," Gordon said later.
"I actually stopped down there [on the track, directly in front of the main grandstands] so they could throw it on me and hit the car. I didn't want them to be disappointed.
"Then I did a burnout to try to spin as many cans out the back of the car as I could."
Gordon has been beleaguered his entire career by boo-birds, mainly of the Earnhardt persuasion - first by the true believers in Dale Jr.'s late father. But at this, Gordon's 65th career victory, the rowdiest fans in NASCAR performed their masterpiece.
And Gordon appreciated it.
"It's not the same if they just stand up and turn around and leave; you want some action," Gordon said. "And I don't mind a little controversy, either."
Earnhardt as usual had the dominant car in the race. He had won four in a row here until last October, when he slipped to a second-place finish behind his teammate, Michael Waltrip.
NASCAR's new rule against racing back to the caution flag kicked in. Now, the moment a caution is displayed, the running order of the field is frozen. Upon reviewing videotape, the officials decided Earnhardt had not passed Gordon until a moment after the caution came out. That meant Gordon led under the frozen-field condition.
Earnhardt disagreed but said he wasn't going to fight the decision.
"I thought I was ahead of Jeff in the corner when the caution came out," Earnhardt said. "I was a car length past him, going by a caution light that was not on ... but NASCAR had the opposite opinion.
"We're not going to stomp our feet and argue ... about it," Earnhardt said. "NASCAR makes the rules. That's a difficult decision for them."
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.