New crew chief Brian Whitesell made the right call at the right time and Jeff Gordon found himself in the winner's circle once again.
Whitesell, who replaced master crew chief Ray Evernham last Wednesday on the Hendrick Motorsports team, gambled and won Sunday's NAPA AutoCare 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
Fifteen laps from the end of the 500-lap race on the tight half-mile oval, all of the leaders except Gordon pitted for fresh tires under the last of eight caution flags.
"Jeff makes a decision like that easy to make," said Whitesell, a picture of calm confidence in the aftermath of his first race in charge of the team that has won three of the last four NASCAR Winston Cup championships.
Asked why he made that decision, Whitesell who had been the team's engineer and was Evernham's hand-picked successor said, "Track position. That's always important."
"We knew if we got back in the pack it was not going to be a good thing," he said. "We had nothing to lose. We either win the race of finish about fifth."
Gordon, who has a series-high six victories this season, made the gamble work, pulling away on the restart on lap 482 and holding off hard-charging Dale Earnhardt by less than two car lengths.
"That answers a lot of questions, doesn't it?" Gordon said as he celebrated the 48th victory of his career. "Brian Whitesell did a great job. I'm proud of him."
Gordon also gave credit to Evernham, who had been his crew chief for every race since the three-time Winston Cup champion was rookie of the year in 1993 before leaving to start his own team.
"This team kept faith in themselves and in one another," Gordon said. "But we wouldn't be here today if it weren't for Ray Evernham. He's the one who orchestrated these guys. I think this is a sign of good things to come."
Whitesell agreed, saying, "The reason we're here is Ray Evernham. He taught us how to do it."
Most of the excitement in the early part of the race was caused by Kenny Irwin and rookie Tony Stewart, former short track rivals.
Stewart spun out Irwin twice in the early going, bringing out the first two caution flags. On the ensuing restart, Irwin retaliated, slammed into Stewart and also took out Brett Bodine.
Stewart threw te heat shields from his race shoes at Irwin's windshield and reached into the car to take a swipe at his rival as Irwin went by under caution the next time around.
"It's the same thing when we ran sprint cars," said Stewart, who admitted he was to blame for spinning out Irwin earlier in the race. "He didn't like to be behind me then, either."
Irwin said: "I just treated him like he treated me. The thing is, I would have given Tony the first one. We've raced together for a long time. But I wasn't going to give him two of them."
NASCAR was expected to reprimand both drivers after reviewing the videotapes Monday.
Gordon, who averaged 72.624 mph, led only twice for a total of 29 laps. The first time he led was on lap 416, but Kenny Wallace took over the top spot four laps later and Earnhardt passed him for the lead on lap 431.
The 48-year-old, seven-time champion appeared on the way to his third victory of the season until Chad Little spun in turn four on lap 475, bringing out the last yellow.
Earnhardt, bothered by a stomach flu that he said weakened him badly late in the race, was third on the final restart, quickly passing Bobby Labonte for second on lap 483 and going after Gordon.
"I might have overdrove the car trying to catch him at first," Earnhardt said. "He played the cards right. I got to him too late."
Asked if he knew Earnhardt was catching him at the end, Gordon, who had last pitted for tires on lap 419, said, "That wasn't a pretty sight. I never drove a race car smoother than that in my life. I had to take care of those tires."
Referring to a race in August in Bristol, Tenn., in which Earnhardt won after bumping leader Terry Labonte into the wall on the last lap, Gordon grinned and said, "To be honest, going into that lap turn, all I could think of was Terry Labonte. I didn't want (Earnhardt) to get to my rear bumper."
"He gave me a nudge, but it was after the checkered flag."
Geoff Bodine finished third, followed by Rusty Wallace, who made up a lost lap on the final yellow, his brother, Kenny, Mike Skinner, Kyle Petty and Bobby Labonte.
Skinner, who led 138 laps, and Labonte, who led 120, both fell out of contention after their final stops.
Labonte made the biggest gain in the series championship Sunday, vaulting past Mark Martin into second place, although he trails leader Dale Jarrett by 251 points with six races remaining.
Jarrett lost two laps early, getting caught in the pits when a yellow flag came out. He came back to finish one lap down in 10th.
Martin had a terrible day, bouncing off the wall twice, and wound up 16th, three laps behind. He fell 276 points behind Jarrett and 25 behind Labonte.
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