TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Jeff Gordon didn't lead a lap yesterday until the last one. But that, of course, was plenty to win the UAW-Ford 500 and take the lead in the Chase for the Nextel Cup standings.
Gordon and teammate Jimmie Johnson finished 1-2 with one of the most bizarre, masterful and trying strategies ever displayed at NASCAR's biggest, wildest track.
And they entrenched themselves firmly as co-favorites to win the Chase. Johnson is in second place, only nine points behind Gordon.
They rode near the back of the field for most of the race, giving themselves time and space to avoid the massive crashing that had been anticipated in NASCAR's first pairing of the Car of Tomorrow design with traditionally frantic restrictor-plate racing.
"I'm telling you, that's the hardest thing I've ever had to do in a race car," Gordon said of lagging back for three-fourths of the race. "I like to think I'm patient, but this was beyond patience. I'd never yawned in a race car before. But I yawned, riding back there today."
They waited until after "The Big One" - the inevitable multi-car wreck here - to begin working toward the front. This time the pileup involved 11 cars with 44 laps remaining of the 188 on 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway.
Other than that, "I thought the race was actually relatively calm," said Gordon's crew chief, Steve Letarte, compared to the craziness that had been expected. "I thought the drivers were very patient and made good decisions."
"Today wasn't a typical Talladega race," Gordon said. "Today, guys were being a lot more careful."
That was evident from the start when Gordon, Johnson and Clint Bowyer, third in the Chase standings, actually dropped into a whole separate drafting line, far behind the front-runners.
Even up front, extreme caution was the rule of the day, with eight of the nine yellow flags coming out due to blown tires or engines rather than driving mistakes.
With five laps to go, Johnson and Gordon went to the front, 1-2, and until the final lap, "I really thought Jimmie was going to win the race," Gordon said. "I didn't think anybody was going to get around him, let alone me."
Gordon got help from a serendipitous source. Tony Stewart, fourth in the Chase standings, had chosen to avoid trouble all afternoon by running up front. As the white flag flew, Stewart tried to make a frantic run back to the front.
Gordon whipped his Chevrolet up high and alongside Johnson, and at that moment caught a tremendous bump-draft from the onrushing Stewart.
The win was Gordon's fifth this season, the 80th of his Cup career, and his 12th restrictor-plate win, breaking the late Dale Earnhardt's record of 11 plate wins.
But the notoriously rowdy, anti-Gordon and pro-Earnhardt fans at Talladega behaved themselves as Gordon did his victory burnouts. Last spring here they pelted his car with full beer cans when he got his 77th career win to surpass Earnhardt for sixth place on the all-time NASCAR winners list. This time they merely gave him the thumbs down sign en masse while he taunted them by sending clouds of tire smoke into their faces.
Only one beer can was thrown onto the track, and Gordon deftly used his spinning rear tires to kick the can back toward the stands.
"I have to admit, I was a little disappointed in that," Gordon said of the relatively mild animosity in place of the riotous reception he's learned to enjoy during his six Talladega wins.
Johnson was far more relieved than disappointed with his near miss.
"To get that close and not win is a letdown," he said. But considering that Chase contenders just wanted to get through this race without wrecking, "we have to think about the big picture."
Bowyer managed an 11th-place finish to remain third in the standings, but he's now 63 points out of the lead. Stewart wound up eighth yesterday to retain fourth in the standings, but he's now 154 back, with six races remaining in the playoffs.
Denny Hamlin finished fourth, to move out of the cellar, from 12th to ninth in the standings.
Gordon was downright giddy just to get through the race, let alone win it.
"I've got to go back and watch the video," he said. "I'm still a little shocked."
Ed Hinton writes for Tribune Publishing newspapers.