ATLANTA — Tuesday was a historic day in NASCAR, and not just because it marked only the second rain-delayed Tuesday race since 1978.
Jeff Gordon, who ran his very first Sprint Cup-level race at Atlanta in 1992, won his 85th Sprint Cup race on a gray, rain-pocked afternoon. (And yes, there were more fans in the stands than Gordon has wins. Barely.) And Gordon did so in definitive, line-in-the-sand fashion, staring down reigning five-time champion Jimmie Johnson turn after turn in some of the best closing laps of the season.
The race began at 11 a.m. under low cloud cover, and Gordon clearly had the most dominant car of the entire afternoon. Not even two rain delays and brief challenges by Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth (and a praying-on-his-knees J.J. Yeley, who was leading during the longest rain delay) could stop Gordon's return to the front, again and again.
And yet, when it was all over and the pomp and circumstance began, Gordon was actually surprised at the day's significance. The 85 wins move him into sole possession of third place all-time, behind only Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105). (There's a bit of confusion about whether Bobby Allison has won 84 or 85 races, but that's mostly stirred up by Allison himself.)
Presented with a plaque commemorating his 85 wins, Gordon was obviously thankful, but clearly his mind is on the immediate future rather than his Hall of Fame-caliber career. When asked about how these closing laps stood up to some of his greatest head-to-head duels, Gordon agreed that it was "a great battle, as good as they [the 48 team] are," but quickly turned the conversation to his current prospects. "That's the kind of race team we have now."
Indeed, Gordon is looking as strong as he ever has heading into a Chase, and that includes the 2007 season in which the points reset wiped out his dominating regular-season lead. "We're having a lot of fun right now," he said. "Our race cars are fun. We've got a lot of momentum."
He'll have his hands full once again with Johnson, who's once again in championship-contention form as the Chase nears. "We're just having a terrible year," Johnson smiled in an obvious dig at those who have written off the 48's chances this year. He is leading the points now, after all. "So hopefully we can pick things up a little bit."
For now, though, even though Johnson is leading the standings, it's Gordon who's got all the mojo. The inconsistencies of his early 2011 are a distant memory, and even his pit crew problems were largely ironed out. "It doesn't matter where we go," he said. "Our care are competitive, we're having a blast out there and I think we have more to come when this Chase starts."
He'll have plenty of time to reflect on history in another 11 weeks. And before then, he might just make some more.