It took an unexpected move to put Jeff Gordon back in a familiar place: Victory Lane at Talladega Superspeedway.
Gordon seized upon a surprising opportunity on the final lap of Sunday's UAW-Ford 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup race at Talladega. As a pack of 18 cars roared down the backstretch, Gordon suddenly darted out from behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson and used a push from Tony Stewart to pass Johnson for the lead heading into Turn 3.
Gordon held on from there to capture his second consecutive victory at Talladega and the sixth of his career, breaking his tie with Dale Earnhardt Jr. for most driver wins. It also was a record 12th restrictor-plate victory of his career and his 80th win overall. Gordon's victory also gives car owner Rick Hendrick the distinction of most owner wins (10) at Talladega Superspeedway, breaking a tie with Richard Childress.
But afterward, Gordon admitted that he thought there would be a different Hendrick Motorsports car in Victory Lane.
"I really thought Jimmie was going to win the race," Gordon said. "I really wasn't getting the momentum that I felt I needed to make a pass. … I was sitting there with the 12 (Ryan Newman) and the 2 (Kurt Busch) on the outside just locking me down. I couldn't have gone anywhere if I'd wanted to.
"Then they got three-wide and the momentum shifted. I got a push from the 22 (Dave Blaney), and I just went with it. Then I heard my spotter say the 20 (Stewart) had a run outside, and it just happened when I made that move on Jimmie that he couldn't block me. I got to the outside, and I looked in my mirror and there was the 20 pushing me.
"Sometimes that move works for you, and sometimes it doesn't."
This time it did. Johnson, meanwhile, never had a chance to try a similar move to retake the lead from Gordon and had to settle for second place.
"I couldn't see what was going on back there. My mirror was full of just the 24," Johnson said. "He pulled out in front of the 20 at the right time, and the 20 gave him a shove.
"I hate losing. It wouldn't matter if it was Jeff Gordon or somebody else. The competitor in you wants to win. You get that close, you want to win."
Blaney finished third, tying his career-best NASCAR NEXTEL Cup finish, followed by Denny Hamlin in fourth, Newman fifth, Casey Mears sixth, Busch seventh, Stewart eighth, Tony Raines ninth and Reed Sorenson 10th.
Gordon's pass was the 42nd lead change among 22 drivers. And while there was some concern entering the race about how the new Car of Tomorrow would work in its first appearance at a restrictor-plate track, Gordon's crew chief gave the car and the race a rave review.
"It was exciting. I think it was everything everybody hoped for in an exciting finish," Steve Letarte said. "This facility is so smooth and such a beautiful race track, and to be as big as it is, you're going to have a wild finish and you're going to have a wild race.
"I thought the race was actually relatively calm throughout, other than a few engines and a couple of tires. I think everybody really did a good job, especially all the drivers. I thought the drivers were very patient and made good decisions. There at the end it was as exiting as everybody wants. I think the fans will definitely be coming back. To make a pass on the last lap for the win and to have your teammate finish second is definitely a great feeling."
Gordon agreed. After a half-dozen victories at Talladega Superspeedway, he has nothing but fond feelings about the track.
"I love coming here," Gordon said. "I love racing with 10 (laps) to go and it's wild and crazy like that. And I think the fans here get to see an awesome show."