Gordon wins as Kenseth builds his point lead

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

HAMPTON, Ga. -- With the season championship all but out of reach, Jeff Gordon knew his best hope was to build momentum for a title run in 2004.

A victory on Monday in the rain-interrupted NASCAR Winston Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway was his second in a row, giving his Hendrick Motorsports team the boost the four-time Winston Cup champion was looking for.

"Number one, we always want to win and we fight to win every race," Gordon said. "The thing I love about our race team is when we go through tough times, and we've been through them before, it just makes us dig deeper and get stronger.

"This reminds us a little bit of 2000, where we ended the season on a real positive note. And this is better because I don't remember us winning a couple of races toward the end of the season."

While Gordon was celebrating his win in the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 -- which was halted by rain Sunday after just 39 of 325 laps -- Kevin Harvick was lamenting what likelyw as the end of his quest to catch points leader Matt Kenseth. Harvick finished 20th, struggling over the last 100 laps after his Chevrolet was involved in a wreck with Dave Blaney. Kenseth rallied from early struggles to come home 11th, and his lead ballooned to 258 points over new second-place driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.

One spot farther back is Harvick, who's now 262 behind Kenseth.

"It's over," was all Harvick said afterward.

Monday's race ended under caution after pole-winner Ryan Newman was sent spinning into the wall with a tap on the rear bumper by Earnhardt four laps from the end.

Gordon went 22 races without a win before taking the checkered flag Oct. 19 at Martinsville.

"Never count us out," Gordon said. "I know we haven't won a lot this year, but we're strong finishers."

The two latest wins followed four straight fifth-place finishes and have helped Gordon move into fifth in the season standings, 296 points behind Kenseth but only 38 behind Earnhardt.

On Monday, Gordon passed six-time Atlanta winner Bobby Labonte for the lead on lap 277 and stayed in front the rest of the way to earn his fourth victory at the Atlanta track.

Jimmie Johnson, who finished second to his car owner and teammate at Martinsville, was third. He was followed by Bill Elliott and Labonte, who faded after the final pit stops.

Stewart's crew had a problem with an air gun on a pit stop on lap 224. Stewart, who had been fourth, came out of the pits 17th and was 16th when the race restarted on lap 230.

The defending series champion appeared to have the fastest car on the 1.54-mile oval. He quickly caught the leaders, moving all the way to fourth by lap 267.

Gordon and Stewart made their final stops under green on lap 286 and Stewart came out second. He pressured Gordon as much as he could but was unable to catch the leader.

Stewart was about five car-lengths behind Gordon in the battle of Chevrolets when the last of 10 cautions waved on lap 322. With NASCAR no longer allowing drivers to race back to the flagstand on a caution, that ended Stewart's challenge.

"That's pretty impressive coming back from 17th place to second without a caution," said Stewart, who made only a few quick comments before leaving the track. "I'm pretty happy.

"If we hadn't come out 17th on that pit stop, we'd have won."

Gordon had fuel pressure problems on restarts and said he was fortunate that the caution-filled race stayed under green for 93 laps before Newman hit the wall because there was no time for another restart.

"With the problems we were having in first and second gear, I was afraid Tony would pass me if we had another restart," Gordon said. "I was pretty happy when I realized the race would end under yellow."

Gordon said he also felt fortunate to hold off the hard-charging Stewart as long as he did.

"I was expecting him to catch me. I kept moving my line around, trying to get in front of him and him his air," Gordon said. "I had an awesome pit crew today. That's what won the race."

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