By DONNA-BETH WEILENMAN
Jeff Gordon jumped around like a kid, not a driver with a 23-year Sprint Cup career, after winning Sunday’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 under dusky skies in Martinsville, Virginia. “We’re going to Homestead! We’re going to Homestead!” he kept shouting.
The win in the first race of the Eliminator Round cinched his chance to finish his career with a shot of the 2015 championship Nov. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida. The other races will be at Texas Motor Speedway this coming Sunday and at Phoenix International Raceway Nov. 15, after which only Gordon and three other drivers will be in contention for the championship.
A jubilant Gordon leaped from the ground into his pit crew, who held him up as if they were a small mosh pit. Then the Vallejo native hugged his family, present for his first win of his last season as a full-time Sprint Cup driver.
Gordon was working toward the front when David Ragan spun with 35 laps left in the 500-lap race. A.J Allmendinger, a Los Gatos native, held the lead he had captured five laps before.
With 21 laps left, Gordon took the top spot. With just six laps left, Sam Hornish went for a spin. But Gordon, who sometimes has faltered at restarts, withstood a strong challenge from Jamie McMurray to win.
Behind them were Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman, Bakersfield native and current champion Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart to round out the top 10.
Allmendinger finished 11th; El Cajon native Jimmie Johnson was 12th and another Bakersfield driver, Casey Mears, was 17th. Of other California drivers, Kyle Larson of Elk Grove was 19th, Cole Whitt of Alpine was 20th, David Gilliland of Riverside was 24th and Grass Valley’s Matt DiBenedetto was 30th.
The contest saw 17 caution flags fly, mostly for accidents. The record is 21. Those incidents plus the switch to standard time meant drivers were heading into dusk when the final green flag dropped.
“It’s dark!” Gordon radioed to his crew. Unlike most tracks, Martinsville has no lights.
The race also turned testy in a controversial crash involving Matt Kenseth and the leader at the time, Joey Logano. Logano, a championship contender, won the past three races, one involving a move that led to a Kenseth crash.
The crowd cheered Kenseth as he emerged from his car. Logano’s crew kept his father at bay.
Kenseth, who has been eliminated from the Sprint Cup playoffs Chase for the Championship, spun earlier in the race and collected Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch. Several laps down after repairs to his car, Kenseth was behind Logano. On Lap 454, the front of Kenseth’s car appeared to connect with the back of Logano, who crashed against the track wall. Kenseth’s car was also too damaged to continue.
Race officials called Kenseth, crew chief Jason Ratcliff and team owner Joe Gibbs to the NASCAR hauler for a conference about the incident.
“We were certainly disappointed with what took place tonight on the racetrack,” Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell said shortly after the race.
“Like we always do, there’s still a lot to digest from what happened tonight. We’ll have some additional conversations and probably come out with something.”
“Something” was a two-race suspension and six-month probation for Kenseth, which team owner Joe Gibbs promptly appealed.
In his team’s statement, Gibbs said he was challenging “the severity of the penalty, which is believed to be inconsistent with previous penalties for similar on-track incidents.” The racing team said it would issue no more comments during the appeal process.
In announcing the penalty, NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell said: “Based upon our extensive review, we have concluded that the No. 20 car driver (Kenseth), who is no longer in the Chase, intentionally wrecked the No. 22 car driver (Logano), a Chase-eligible competitor who was leading the race at the time. The No. 20 car was nine laps down, and eliminated the No. 22 car’s opportunity to continue to compete in the race.”
O’Donnell said earlier that the crash on Lap 454 between a driver who is several laps down and a driver who had led half the race was “a little bit different than two drivers really going after it coming out of Turn 4 for a win.”
He said safety aspects and the way the new Chase elimination format “puts a premium on each and every race. These actions have no place in NASCAR.”
Addressing a different crash on the track, Danica Patrick was fined $50,000, penalized 25 Sprint Cup driver points and placed on probation through Dec. 31 for her actions in pursuit of David Gilliland of Riverside.
Gordon was one of several drivers who weighed in on the crash, saying it reminded him of his own situation during the 2012 season.
That year, he crushed Clint Bowyer’s chance at the championship when the two tangled in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2012. Some saw the intentional crash as retaliation for an incident earlier in the season at Martinsville, when Bowyer’s car caused Gordon’s to spin. “I can relate to Matt,” Gordon said Sunday.
For his incident in 2012, Gordon was fined $100,000, lost 25 driver points and was put on probation for the rest of the season. After the penalty was announced, Gordon said: “I take responsibility for my actions on the racetrack … I accept NASCAR’s decision.”
The win is Gordon’s 93rd at Cup level. The four-time champion takes the lead in points, followed by Kyle Busch, Truex, Harvick, Carl Edwards, Keselowski, Kyle’s brother Kurt Busch and Logano.
Meanwhile, drivers are preparing for the next Eliminator Round race, the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. Broadcast is at 11 a.m. Pacific time Sunday on NBC.