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Engaged Gordon still king of the road

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The Associated Press
Jeff Gordon celebrates alongside fiancee Ingrid Vandebosch after winning the Dodge/ Save Mart 350 Nascar Nextel Cup auto race in Sonoma, Calif. on Sunday.


By MIKE HARRIS
AP Auto Racing Writer

SONOMA, Calif. — Jeff Gordon called crew chief Steve Letarte with two pieces of important news Sunday morning.
“I told him, ‘Steve, I’m engaged and we’re going to win today.”
Gordon, who let the world know Sunday that he and longtime girlfriend Ingrid Vandebosch are planning to marry at some as yet unspecified date, also made good on his promise to Letarte, leading a race-high 44 of 110 laps at Infineon Raceway on the way to a record ninth road racing win.
“I can’t even describe the emotions of winning today because it’s been a while,” Gordon said after parlaying patience and a fast car into his 74th NASCAR victory, but his first since last October at Martinsville. “It’s a relief.
“It’s so important to get that first win because, as the season goes on, you just feel more and more pressure,” added the four-time NASCAR champion.
NASCAR’s top “Road Warrior” started 11th in the 43-car field and took the lead for the first time on lap 49. He went on to earn his fifth victory on the picturesque wine country circuit.
Gordon said he choked up in the car after taking the checkered flag.
“You know, I guess it suddenly hit me everything that was going on,” Gordon said. “I had gone 30 days without telling anybody about the engagement, so I had been holding that in, and it’s been a long time since we got that last win. Everything all just came together this weekend.”
Perhaps most important, the victory also vaulted Gordon back into the top 10 in points with just 10 races until the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship begins. The top 10 drivers in the points after the 26th race of the season are eligible for the 10-race playoff.
Last year, Gordon struggled, failing to qualify for the Chase, and switched crew chiefs, with Letarte replacing Robbie Loomis for the last 10 races. Gordon promised his fans and the team he was going to bounce back, but they went 16 races into the 2006 season before getting that first victory, only the third time since he came into NASCAR’s top series full-time in 1993 that Gordon has gone that long without a win.
This latest one didn’t come easy, either.
Two-time series champion Terry Labonte grabbed the lead for a while with a slick fuel strategy, but Gordon was able to hunt NASCAR’s “Iceman” down, regain the lead on lap 88 and eventually pull away for his first Sonoma win since June 2004.
“Man, I didn’t know if we were ever going to win another one of these races. I knew this team was something special, we just haven’t had a chance to really show it,” he added. “They gave me such an awesome race car this weekend that I had to get them this win. If we didn’t win with this car, we can’t ever win.”
Labonte, driving this week for the first-year Hall of Fame Racing team co-owned by former Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman, pitted for the final time on lap 60 and found himself in the lead on lap 71 after all the other leaders made their final stops.
Gordon was about 12 seconds behind Labonte after his pit stop on lap 70. With Labonte conserving fuel in an effort to make it to the end, Gordon steadily cut into the margin, finally passing Labonte with a strong inside move on the hairpin 11th-turn.
Three late caution flags helped Labonte save fuel and kept the field bunched up. After a six-car crash on lap 105 brought out the second red flag of the race to allow for a cleanup — this one for 13 minutes — Labonte and the rest of the contenders got one last shot at Gordon.
But the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was just too strong. Gordon took the green flag for the start of lap 108 and pulled away. Ryan Newman finally got past Labonte for second place on lap 109, finishing 1.25 seconds — about eight car-lengths — behind the winner.
Greg Biffle finished fourth, followed by pole-winner Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Jeff Burton.
“We should have been second but I didn’t get my tires good and clean after that last red flag,” said Labonte, who earned his nickname with a cool, quiet demeanor that paid off again on Sunday. “I didn’t want to use too much gas. It took me a couple of laps to get going and the 12 car (Newman) got me.”
Labonte, who plans to retire from the cockpit at the end of this season, ran only nine races last year and has run 10 of 16 this year, splitting time between Hall of Fame Racing and the Hendrick team. This was the first top five finish for the 49-year-old Labonte since winning the second race at Darlington in 2003.
The victory by Gordon broke a string of three straight road race victories for Tony Stewart, who had another unlucky day. The defending race champion and reigning Nextel Cup champion, who was knocked out of last week’s race at Michigan, overcame a drive-through penalty for speeding on pit road Sunday and appeared strong enough to contend for another win until he lost a cylinder late in the race. He wound up 28th.
Series leader Jimmie Johnson, Gordon’s teammate, survived a spin to finish 10th and increased his lead over Matt Kenseth — 17th on Sunday — from 74 to 101 points. Gordon jumped from 11th to eighth in the standings, while Stewart fell from sixth to seventh, 26 points ahead of Gordon heading into next Saturday’s race at Daytona.
Paul Menard took advantage of a mistake by Jason Leffler, then held on in the closing laps to win the Busch Series AT&T 250 on Saturday night in West Allis, Wisc.

 

These Tigers are hard to tame

By The Associated Press
The St. Louis Cardinals arrived in Detroit with a healthy Albert Pujols and the second-best record in the National League. Surely, they would pose a problem for the majors’ most surprising team.
Not one bit — there’s no taming these Tigers.
Curtis Granderson hit a go-ahead RBI double in a three-run eighth inning and Detroit completed a three-game sweep of St. Louis with a 4-1 victory Sunday.
The Tigers have won nine of 10, maintaining the best record in baseball and holding off the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central. Just three years ago, Detroit lost an AL-record 119 games.