Jeff Gordon Wins Las Vegas 400

Monday, March 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LAS VEGAS, Nev. (AP) — Robbie Loomis thought his luck in Las Vegas was changing when he won nearly $10,000 gambling during an offseason test.

The crew chief's only gamble Sunday came late in the UAW-DaimlerChrylser 400 when he chose to give driver Jeff Gordon a two-tire pit stop to gain some track position on Las Vegas Motor Speedway's 1 1/2 -mile oval.

This one worked to perfection, too.

``Robbie didn't gamble at all this weekend,'' Gordon said with a laugh. ``He was afraid to because he didn't want to use up the luck he found during the test.

``This helps us all feel better about coming to Las Vegas.''

Over the first three years that the Winston Cup series has come to the track on the north edge of this desert gambling city, Gordon has been left frustrated, with finishes of 28th, third and 17th.

Last year, Gordon crashed in practice on Saturday and was never competitive in the race with the repaired Monte Carlo.

``We fixed the car instead of going to a backup and then, when we got home, we found out the frame was bent,'' Loomis said. ``It was terrible, terrible, terrible. When Jeff Gordon is going from 10th to 40th, that ain't good.''

Gordon, a three-time champion, won $369,602 from the race purse and a $1 million bonus from the series sponsor.

``Winning at this racetrack, as much as we've struggled here in the past, it means almost as much to me as the million dollars,'' he said.

``If we can run this strong at a track like this, we're off to a good start. We just need to keep doing what we're doing and build on the momentum.''

The victory was his 53rd, tying Gordon with Rusty Wallace for the most wins among active drivers. The first win for Gordon since last September in Richmond, Va., moved him into second place in the season standings, trailing Sterling Marlin — Sunday's third-place finisher — by 35 points after three of 36 races.

Gordon, NASCAR's biggest star now that Dale Earnhardt is gone, took the lead with 20 laps remaining and drove off to an easy victory over Dale Jarrett. As great as the car was at the end, it was a handful early in the race.

``The car was real, real tight in traffic and we were just struggling,'' Gordon said.

The quick two-tire stop late in the 267-lap race was the key.

``That freed the car up quite a lot, and all of a sudden it came to life,'' Gordon said, beaming at Loomis — the man who had the difficult job of replacing longtime Gordon crew chief and mentor Ray Evernham. ``I was going by guys that had four (new) tires and just walking away from them after that.''

All the leaders pitted on lap 179 during the last of six caution periods during the race, and, with the two-tire stop instead of four, Gordon, who went into the pits sixth, came out third behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jerry Nadeau and the Marlin's Dodge.

Marlin took the lead on lap 202, and Gordon got by Nadeau for second on the next lap. Gordon stalked Marlin, cutting steadily into his lead before charging past on lap 225 to become the 12th leader in the race.

Gordon lost the lead for a while during a series of green-flag pit stops, but came back out on top on lap 248 and pulled away from the second-place Ford of Jarrett to win by 1.477-seconds — about 15 car lengths.

``That showed me and this entire team that we have to stick together and never give up,'' Gordon said. ``It's something we need to keep doing every race.''

The win also broke a string of three straight Las Vegas victories by the Roush Racing Fords of Mark Martin and Jeff Burton.

Jarrett said the Fords continue to race with an aerodynamic disadvantage this season because of rule changes that have given other makes an edge.

``You can really feel it when you pull up on another car like Gordon's Monte Carlo and your momentum just stops,'' the 1999 series champion said.

Jarrett, who started from the pole, added that his car became very loose late in the race.

``We got a set of tires where the car just went crazy loose and that kind of spooked me,'' he said. ``We never got it back free enough and it never let me race Jeff.''

Johnny Benson finished fourth in a Pontiac, followed by the Fords of Todd Bodine and Martin and the Chevy of last week's winner, Steve Park — the best finish among the three Dale Earnhardt Inc. entries. Daytona winner Michael Waltrip was strong early, but faded to 13th, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. led briefly and slipped back to finish 23rd.

Kevin Harvick, who replaced the elder Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing after NASCAR's biggest star was killed in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500, was the top-finishing rookie. He was eighth.

Burton, who won the race here the last two years, was the first driver eliminated from contention when he lost control and hit the wall on lap two