Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham have become the masters of the two-tire pit stop, and that strategy won them another race on Sunday.
With Gordon battling Bobby Labonte - winner of three of the previous five Winston Cup races at Atlanta Motor Speedway - late in the Cracker Barrel 500, it came down to a final pit stop for gas and tires.
"I was going to do two (tires) no matter what," said Ray Evernham, Gordon's crew chief. "I knew somebody was going to if we didn't."
As it turned out, all the lead-lap cars made the same decision, and Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet got the biggest benefit, pulling away over the final laps to win by nearly a straightaway over Labonte on the 1.54-mile oval.
"Whenever we do two tires, we always make a little adjustment to compensate for it," Evernham said. "It worked pretty well this time."
Gordon and Labonte, along with series points leader Mike Skinner, dominated, combining to lead 291 of the 325 laps in a race that began after a 1 hour, 40-minute rain delay. The race finished under the lights with light rain beginning to fall.
"We worked on the car all day long," said Gordon, who led four times for a race-high 109 laps. "Once we got to working on it late in the day and the lights came on, that thing was a rocket."
It was the second victory in four starts this season for Gordon, the two-time defending Winston Cup champion, and the 44th of his career. The win vaulted Gordon, winner of three of the last four series titles, from fifth to third in the current points.
With the laps winding down, Gordon made the decisive pit stop.
He was leading when he dived onto pit road on lap 298, but Labonte's Pontiac roared back onto the track ahead of Gordon's Monte Carlo after his stop a lap later.
By the time the last of the lead lap cars went into the pits on lap 311, Gordon was in front of Labonte - who came in having won three of the last five races here.
It was no contest the rest of the way, with Gordon pulling steadily away and winning by 2.537-seconds - about 25 car-lengths.
"Right at the end it was one of those deals when our two tires didn't run good for me and his did," said Labonte, who led seven times for 103 laps.
"His car all day long was a little bit loose on new tires," Gordon explained. "We were pretty good with fresh tires. I was expecting late in that final run for Bobby to run me down like he had earlier in the race. But we got into some lapped traffic and that helped me."
The 27-year-old Gordon offered high praise for Evernham and the rest of the Hendrick Motorsports crew.
"Ray and I were saying we've got better communications than we've ever had, and that's given us more confidence, too," said Gordon, who averaged 143.296 mph on the way to the winner's payoff of $117,650.
Skinner led 79 laps and was in the thick of the battle befoe his Chevrolet developed a battery problem just past the halfway point.
He managed to hold on to third place for nearly 20 laps after turning off most of the electrical switches on his car, then caught a break when Geoffrey Bodine's crash on lap 234 brought out a caution flag.
| Gordon pops into Atlanta for another victory. (AP)|
Skinner, whose victory in Saturday's Busch series race taken away by NASCAR because of an unapproved engine part, managed to make three stops during the caution without losing a lap and restarted 16th - the last car on the lead lap - when the green flag waved on lap 246.
His battery problems left the battle to Gordon and Labonte, but Skinner charged back to finish sixth. He now has finished no worse than sixth in the four races this season and leads Labonte by 32 points in the standings. Gordon is 44 behind the leader.
Mark Martin, last year's series runner-up, came on strong at the end to finish third, followed by teammate Jeff Burton, the winner last week in Las Vegas, and Dale Jarrett. All three were in Fords.
The race was run entirely under a dark, threatening skies. Two of the six caution flags were caused by raindrops, but the entire event was run with no stoppages.
It was the third straight Winston Cup race at Atlanta affected by rain. The event last March was postponed until the next day, and the season-ender in November had a delayed start and was interrupted several times before finally ending after midnight with a Gordon victory.
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