DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) _ Jeff Gordon overcame an overheating engine _ he said with five laps to go there was no way he'd make it to the finish _ to race to his third victory of the season Sunday at Darlington Raceway. Hendrick Motorsports has won four straight races, eight of the last nine, and remained perfect in five Car of Tomorrow events.
``I can't believe that thing lasted,'' Gordon said of his motor, which had thick steam streaming out of it for the last hour of the race. ``There's no way that thing should have ever made it.''
When it did _ even though Gordon gambled and didn't make a final pit stop when most of the field did with 23 laps to go _ Gordon won for the third time in four races and maintained a 231-point lead over Jimmie Johnson in the Nextel Cup standings.
``That's the way you win races right there,'' said Gordon, a seven-time Darlington winner. ``What an amazing year we're having.''
As steam poured from his engine, Gordon figured his chance at victory had gone up in smoke. Any other season, it would have. But in this year of near-perfection for Hendrick, nothing ever goes wrong. And Denny Hamlin, who finished in second place, is pretty sick of it.
Hamlin, who led a race-high 179 laps, suffered when his crew dropped a pair of lug nuts on a late pit stop. It cost him a shot at running for the win, and he has finished second or third in four COT races.
It was extremely frustrating for Hamlin, who has led a series-high 563 laps in the five races the car has been used.
``We gave away another one to Hendrick Motorsports,'' Hamlin said. ``It's a shame. This has got to end. We have to win a race sooner or later. Everybody will talk about how Hendrick won another race, but this was our race.''
Hamlin was also critical of NASCAR for not calling a caution for obvious debris in the closing laps. Had the yellow flag waved, Hamlin was confident he would have beaten Gordon.
``Somebody's entire fender and underbody was on the race track,'' Hamlin said. ``I literally pumped my fist in the car 'cause I knew a caution was going to come out. And of course, if caution comes out, its game over. Instead, Hendrick gets another break.''
Even Gordon admitted that NASCAR should have thrown a yellow. But he didn't complain because he believed a debris caution with 17 to go _ when Gordon had a huge lead _ was bogus.
``There absolutely should have been a caution there at the end _ but there shouldn't have been one before it,'' Gordon said. ``There at the end _ debris, oil, everything you can imagine _ was on that race track and that comes back to the inconsistency. I am glad they didn't throw it at the end, but I didn't understand why they threw it earlier.
``It can work with you or against you. Today it worked for us.''
Rain washed out the race Saturday night and it was rescheduled for Sunday, making it the first NASCAR race run on Mother's Day since 1986. Although Gordon's mother left the track when it appeared his motor wouldn't last, he was still able to celebrate the win with his pregnant bride.
Gordon and wife Ingrid Vandebosch are expecting their first child _ a daughter _ at the end of June and this was her last race before the birth.
``It was fantastic to just think that here in about six or seven weeks, she is going to be a mother,'' Gordon said. ``She had a little tear in her eye, definitely her emotions and the hormones are flowing right now.
``She knew, too, that this was her last weekend to travel before she has the baby, so I think that meant a lot to her to be able to pull that off before she's stuck at home for a little while.''
Johnson, last week's winner, finished third for Hendrick. Ryan Newman was fourth, followed by Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. capped a frenzied week that began when he said he's leaving DEI at the end of the season by finishing eighth.
But Earnhardt said strong support from his crew kept everyone focused.
``My guys said, 'We're behind you,' and that took it all away,'' he said. ``We focused on the car, we drove the car and we had a good time this weekend. I had no pressure, nothing, really on my mind other than what we were supposed to be doing.
``I was surprised. I thought it would be a little more of a distraction.''
Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton, teammates at Richard Childress Racing, rounded out the top 10.
Gordon's radiator was on the verge of busting for the latter part of the race, with thick steam blowing from under the hood as he ran second to Johnson.
But a caution with 23 laps to go changed the race, with Johnson ducking onto pit road while Gordon gambled to stay out. Gordon took over the lead, Johnson restarted in seventh, and no one came close to challenging Gordon again.
Johnson thought he would quickly work his way back to the front on new tires, but had no regrets after traffic prevented the defending champion from scoring his fifth win of the season.
``New tires always pay off here,'' Johnson said. ``If I was back in that position, I think I would go for tires again.''
Gordon never felt confident that his engine would go the distance. He got terrific jumps on every restart, needing the air to cool down his motor, and said he didn't pit with his teammate because he worried the engine would overheat during the stop.