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Gordon Grabs Protection One 400 Win

September 30, 2002

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) _ Rick Hendrick has a four-time Winston Cup winner and the circuit’s leading driver in his stable.

They’re not the same guy, either.

On Sunday, the Hendrick Motorsports owner celebrated Jimmie Johnson’s historic status as the first rookie ever to lead the points standings, and Jeff Gordon’s win in the Protection One 400 _ a victory that revitalized Gordon’s own title hopes.

``It’s anybody’s championship, I think,″ Hendrick said. ``We’re just glad we’ve got two in the hunt, and hopefully we can have some good luck and one of them will get it.″

For Hendrick, the situation brought back memories of 1996, when two of his drivers _ Gordon and Terry Labonte _ were battling for the title that eventually went to Labonte.

``That was a tough thing for me back in ’96, when Terry and Jeff were coming down to the wire,″ Hendrick said. ``I had a meeting with both teams and said, ‘Look, I’m going to tell you what I’m going to do in that last race. If you look up and win the race and you win the championship and you see me with the other team, you won’t get your feelings hurt. I’m going to the guy who finishes second first, and then I’m going to the winner.’

``I hope it comes down to that.″

This was supposed to be Johnson’s year to learn from Gordon _ and hone his skills with the best equipment Hendrick’s could buy _ after a promising stay in the Busch Series.

Instead, he has as many wins _ a rookie-record three _ as the four-time champion. And after his 10th-place finish Sunday, he leads Mark Martin by 11 points heading to Talladega, Ala.

``How am I supposed to advise a guy who’s been wearing me out all season?″ Gordon said. ``There are people who’ve got it and people who don’t, and he’s got it.″

Johnson didn’t know he had the lead, though, until someone told him about Martin’s bad luck.

``I was wondering why everybody was standing around,″ Johnson said. ``There’s more people over here, probably, than there are in Victory Lane with Jeff.″

But Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief, cautioned against getting too excited about the points lead _ especially with five drivers within 137 points of the rookie.

``It doesn’t matter to us,″ Knaus said. ``We’re going out there and we’re trying to win the races. We’re not worried about leading the points. That’s the story that everybody else is talking about.″

Tony Stewart, eighth Sunday, is 36 points back. Gordon moved from fifth to fourth, 109 points behind Johnson.

Sterling Marlin, who has dropped 216 points in the last five weeks, fell to fifth _ 121 points back _ after crashing and finishing 33rd Sunday. And Rusty Wallace’s third-place finish, behind Gordon and rookie Ryan Newman, kept him sixth, 137 back.

``I had a great points day today,″ Wallace said. ``That puts me right back into the thick of this thing. I’m probably really close right now. We’ll see what happens.″

Gordon, who also won last year’s inaugural Winston Cup event at Kansas Speedway, snapped a three-week string of frustration in which the No. 24 Chevrolet finished 40th, 14th and 37th after consecutive victories.

He laughed off a suggestion that by saying he had to do well in Kansas City, he had somehow willed himself to the win after three weeks of frustration.

``I don’t normally like to do that, but sometimes it comes down to crunch time and you have to perform,″ he said. ``I just felt if we had one more week like that, we were done.″

Instead, Gordon dominated from the midpoint of the 267-lap, 400-mile race. He led the last 57 laps and 116 laps overall _ and even made a red-flag restart three laps from the end look easy.

After Johnny Benson, Jeremy Mayfield, Jimmy Spencer and Ricky Rudd spun out in the fourth turn with five laps left, the rest of the field parked in the second turn for more than 13 minutes _ in 92-degree heat _ before starting up again.

``I knew they were going to throw the red flag, but I didn’t realize how hot it was over there,″ said Gordon, who easily held off Newman’s Ford on the restart. ``I’m completely exhausted.″

Joe Nemechek finished a season-high fourth and Bill Elliott was fifth.

Pole winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. fought his way back from a disastrous pit stop near the midpoint to finish sixth. He was followed in the top 10 by Matt Kenseth, Stewart, Mayfield and Johnson.

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