Jeff Gordon brought back memories of days of old Sunday in Las Vegas. For most of Sunday’s 400-mile Cup race it appeared Ray Evernham was on top of the pit box and the "Rainbow Warriors" were servicing the Gordon machine on pit road. Until the final stop.
The last yellow flag waved within the fuel window of the field and shortly after a round of green flag stops were completed. A shorter run to the checkered was set up and the race’s complexion changed on the spot.
Gordon’s crew chief Steve Letarte made the decision for a pair of right side tires to keep their track position as close to the front of the field as possible, guessing some other teams may make a Hail Mary call to try to win the race. And since the left side tires didn’t have an excessive amount of laps on them, his call was calculable.
Most other teams changed all four tires including winner Jimmie Johnson. The race played right into the hands of the man who always seems to find a way to make lemons out of lemonade and right out of the man who dominated the day.
Gordon showed strength after the last green flag waved but Johnson stayed closer than he had previously. The laps on Gordon’s left sides proved to be his weakness and he played Junior Varsity to Johnson’s Varsity stretch drive.
The math adds up when examining the win. Gordon’s last four-tire stop occurred on lap 214. His two-tire stop took place on lap 230. Meaning his left side tires were 16 laps older than anyone else’s was. Johnson passed Gordon for the lead with 16 laps remaining in the race. Hindsight can make anyone a championship Monday morning crew chief.
Chad Knaus made a winning pit call to win. That line has been written more times than I can remember over the past eight years. Letarte, a fine crew chief in his own right, fell just short of Knaus’ effort to win.
But the pair can be proud of the Hendrick team’s combined effort in Sin City. Gordon led more laps than any other driver had in a Vegas race. Johnson followed roughly a half-second behind for a good portion. And the two made the other 41 drivers shrinking images in their rear-view mirrors.
Both cars are prepared in the same building with the same people. Next door in the Hendrick Motorsports complex is the shop where Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s machines are built. Martin was decent while running in the top 10 for most of the day. Earnhardt’s afternoon was spent in the teens, which is a far cry from the Gordon and Johnson tandem, but an improvement over a miserable 2009.
A lasting image from Las Vegas this year was the distance the 24 and 48 Hendrick cars were able to put on everyone else. The final run shook up the running order from the day but, without question, fans witnessed who brought their big guns to the fight.
And Letarte witnessed Knaus hit the Goodyear jackpot, again.
(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR mechanic who co-hosts the One and Done auto racing radio talk show Tuesdays at 11am ET. Listen at www.wsicweb.com.)
Future NASCAR stars
RCR rises at Fontana
Five NASCAR Myths
Daytona 500 track analysis
Best Daytona 500 Finishes
I Prefer The Busch Clash
A Few Moments with Ned Jarrett
Steve Waid looking forward
NASCAR Scene closes
Best Cup races of the 2000s
Top grassroots races
Biggest disappointments of 2009
The races that won Johnson’s title
Best Cup titles
Why the Sprint Cup needs a dirt race
Fan fixes for Talladega and why they won’t work
How to improve NASCAR
The perfect Sprint Cup schedule