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Gamble pays off for Gordon at Dover

June 03, 2013, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com

Gamble pays off for Gordon at Dover
Opting for track position, rather than fuel and tires, leads to impressive Dover finish

DOVER, Del. -- It was a calculated gamble, but a gamble just the same. And the way Jeff Gordon’s season has gone this year it appears any in-race wager carries with it a high amount of risk.

This one, though, paid off, and as a result Gordon departed Dover International Speedway with a third-place finish in the FedEx 400 benefitting Autism Speaks. It was just his third top-five of the season and his fourth top-10.

A four-time NASCAR Cup champion and winner of 87 races, including four at Dover, Gordon had a car capable of contending for the win. What he didn’t have for most of the race was track position.

So when teammate Kasey Kahne, one of four Hendrick drivers, spun on Lap 317 to bring out the sixth of seven cautions, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson made the risky call.

Running outside the top 10, the pair, along with the Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet of Kurt Busch, opted for track position rather than fuel and fresh tires.

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“Alan said ‘come and get four (tires),' and I questioned it,” Gordon said of the decision. “I said, ‘Are you sure?’ And he said, ‘Stay out, stay out.’

“That’s what teamwork is all about. It wasn’t my call; it’s his call. But I think he needs a little bit of a push and encouragement from me at times. I’m happy that I said what I said because obviously it paid off in a big way.”

Fuel did become an issue, but not for Gordon.

Busch headed to pit road for a green-flag stop at Lap 362. Gordon soldiered on, and despite well-worn tires, was able to maintain a top-five position.

When Denny Hamlin cut down a tire with just 22 laps remaining to bring out the day’s seventh and final yellow flag, Gordon was able to pit and maintain his top-10 position. He closed with a rush, picking up three more spots inside the final 19 laps.

“Jeff gets credit for that one,” Gustafson said as he watched his team’s car go through post-race inspection. “He saw that everybody came in and we would line up second. He said, ‘we can get a lot of track position’ so I said take it.

“It was a calculated risk but we got the caution we needed. The 78 (of Busch) didn’t get the caution he needed … It was definitely a gamble that was going to be worth about 10 spots if it worked.”

Gordon closed the 2012 season with a victory in Homestead (Fla.), but has failed to finish three of this season’s 13 races. Sunday’s result shot the 41-year-old up four positions to 11th in the points standings.

“It was just so frustrating back there (in traffic),” Gordon said. “We were better than we were showing, it was just so hard to pass. Some of it was the way our car was set up; it was good in clean air, I just couldn’t move around as much as I needed to. That’s why we weren’t able to get up through there.”

Team owner Rick Hendrick, busy trying to keep tabs on all four of his teams, said afterward that he wasn’t about to reach out and offer input when the crucial call was made.

“Hey, I was the one that told Kenny (Francis) at Charlotte to stay out,” Hendrick said.

Actually, Francis and Kahne had already decided not to pit following a late caution in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The result? Kevin Harvick motored by for the win, leaving Kahne to scratch out a runner-up finish.

When everyone else behind Kahne pitted for fresh tires at Charlotte, “I said ‘I will keep my mouth shut from now on,’ ” Hendrick said.

Points leader Jimmie Johnson appeared on his way to a record-breaking eighth Dover win for the Hendrick organization before a penalty for jumping the final restart silenced the No. 48 Chevrolet.

Kahne finished 23rd, four laps down, after his spin.

And Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 10th, his car better in the second half of the race, he said, but also a victim of track position.

“I wouldn’t have that job,” Hendrick said of the crew chiefs’ position. “There’s so much pressure on those guys to try and make the right decision.

“You don’t know what the guys behind you are going to do. You never know. It’s a crapshoot every time. These cars are so close.

“I don’t know how many times we’ve had the fastest car this year and run second or third or fifth or ninth. Strategy is a big part of this racing; (Jeff’s) car was really good at times and Alan made some good adjustments and the strategy there with gas worked out for him.”

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