MARTINSVILLE, Va. With 35 laps of frustrating failure behind him and only 13 left to pass Bobby Labonte, Jeff Gordon did what he thinks any other driver would have done.
Gordon used the nose of his car to nudge Labonte out of the way on the first turn of the 487th lap Sunday to win the Virginia 500.
I race guys the way they race me,'' Gordon said. Bobby raced me clean, but he was definitely crowding me, and he was cutting the entry into the corner pretty short.''
The victory was the 62nd of Gordon's Winston Cup career, but his first of the season and the first in 16 races, since last September in Kansas City. He won at Martinsville Speedway for the fourth time.
Gordon had been dueling Labonte since they broke free on a restart with 48 laps to go, but Labonte blocked his efforts to pass on both the inside and outside before Gordon finally moved him out of the way.
Each lap that went by and got closer to the finish, the bumps were going to get harder and harder and harder,'' Gordon said. I was pretty determined to win this race. I thought I was kind of nice about it.''
The four-time champion said he didn't really even turn into Labonte, but let Labonte turn into him from an outside line entering the turn.
Gordon described Labonte as a nice guy, and he runs hard and clean, but he doesn't mind getting the job done and doing what it takes to get that win. He came up to me after the race, and we laughed about it.
It wasn't like I just went down in there and took him out.''
Labonte said he had no problem with the bump or the pass, and that he sought out Gordon in Victory Lane purely to congratulate him.
We held Jeff off as long as we could,'' Labonte said, noting that a two-tire stop with 63 laps to go paid off in track position but left him unable to run with Gordon, who had taken on four fresh tires.
That was hard racing. That was good, clean fun,'' Labonte said. We respect each other a lot on the racetrack. We don't talk to each other a whole lot off the racetrack, but I respect his ability in a race car, and I think he does the same for me,'' Labonte said.
When Gordon pulled away on another restart with eight laps to go, the outcome was clear. The 11th caution with a lap to go finished the race.
There's so many sweet things about getting a victory early in the season, in the first third,'' Gordon said. It means so much. It takes that weight off your shoulders. We've been close, and we let a few slip away.''
Labonte, who won this race last year, held on for second, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third after dominating and then having some bad luck.
Earnhardt led three times for 195 laps but ran into the back of Ricky Craven's car during a restart with 55 laps to go. The crash pushed both drivers up the track, and dropped Earnhardt to fifth. But he was thrilled to come back and finish third.
It was pretty good racing, from where I was sitting,'' Earnhardt said. There was a little bit of bumping and carrying on, but I guarantee you that three-quarters of the field would have done a whole lot worse.''
In a season when he's paying more attention to points than he used to, the end result more than soothed Earnhardt's feelings about his crash. He trimmed 78 points off Matt Kenseth's lead in the standings. He's now 51 behind Kenseth, with Gordon 139 behind and Jimmie Johnson 179 back.
We had a shot at it, but the 32 car had a flat tire and ran us up the racetrack, but there wasn't anything we could do,'' Earnhardt said.
Kenseth, who was lapped by Gordon on the 61st lap, finished 22nd. Only 12 cars were still on the lead lap when Gordon took the checkered flag.
Gordon led three times for 190 laps and won with an average speed of 75.557 mph. The race was slowed by caution flags for 64 laps, and the last lead change was the 14th among nine drivers.
Sterling Marlin finished seventh, followed by Rusty Wallace, Jimmie Johnson and Ken Schrader. Ricky Rudd was 11th.
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