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NAPA Auto Parts 500 - California Speedway

-Qualifying
In four races at California, Jeff Gordon has posted more wins than any other driver in the series with a win at the inaugural race in 1997 and again in 1999. Gordon also has one pole and three top fives at the track.

However, in order to achieve a third win at the track Gordon will have to gain quite a few positions this year after driving the DuPont Chevy to a 17th place starting spot. His lap of 180.741 mph (39.836 sec) wasn't enough for Bobby Labonte's pole winning speed of 182.635 mph. Gordon, who was second fastest in practice, stated that the rising temperatures contributed to less grip on the race track, meaning slower times.

Dale Jarrett, who leads Jeff Gordon by 145 points, will start in third. Gordon must finish ahead of Dale Jarrett in order to gain points on him toward the championship. After losing 100 points to Jarrett in the last three races, Gordon looks to old times for the help he needs to get a win on Sunday.

-Race
A late race caution turned a race that was looking to be a blowout, into an exciting 19 lap dash to the checkers. Mark Martin barely nipped the back end of Ward Burton and sent him into a spin toward the outside retaining wall. Because the leaders had all pitted on lap 200, there was no need to pit and lose so much track position. Jeff Gordon restarted after the caution in third place behind Tony Stewart and race leader, Rusty Wallace.

As the green flag flew for the last time Gordon passed Stewart up high on the backstretch. Eighteen laps remained, but the lapped car of Todd Bodine needed to be passed before Gordon could get to Rusty Wallace. As the laps wound down, Gordon was catching Rusty, and finally Bodine pulled over and let Jeff by. When the ten-to-go signal was given, Gordon trailed Wallace by only 0.6 seconds. Gordon kept gaining, but his tight car wasn't quite fast enough for Wallace and probably would not have allowed him to pass. He missed the checkered flag by only 0.270 seconds.

Gordon started 17th, but was running in the top five by lap 25. The first pit stop of the day was on lap 47 for Gordon, who lead a lap before pitting. Before the round of pit stops, the only two drivers in front of him had been the leader, Jimmy Spencer, and Todd Bodine. By virtue of Todd Bodine's slow pit stop, and the Rainbow Warrior's 15.5 second pit stop, Gordon exited the pits in 2nd place. This quick pit stop had cut Spencer's lead down to three seconds.

Then, on lap 58, Bobby Labonte's car spun out of turn four when he slid up in front of Jeff Green. Labonte went for a ride through the infield grass. The caution came out and everyone pitted once again, and Gordon got right side tires and fuel. Jimmy Spencer took on four tires, which moved Gordon into the lead. Dale Jarrett, who stands atop the points standings left the pits with a catch can still stuck in the car. He was forced to come back in to remove it, and ended up 31st when they went back to green on lap 64.

In an effort to save his tires, Gordon ran conservatively for the first laps of the restart. This allowed Johnny Benson to pass him down the backstretch. Soon Jeremy Mayfield was up there, and he and Gordon battled hard for 2nd. Gordon ran the high groove around the track for much of the race and Mayfield ran down low. Finally, on lap 82, Gordon gained the upper hand on Mayfield, who had taken the lead earlier from Johnny Benson.


Jeff Gordon, Benson, and Mayfield

On lap 107, Gordon came in for his second green-flag pit stop of the day. He was complaining of being tight into and out of the corners. The crew made an air pressure adjustment to the right rear, changed four tires, and gave him 22 gallons of fuel in 14.1 seconds. Soon after, as pit stops were still going on, the second caution of the day came out for debris on the track in turns three and four. Some cars pitted while Dale Jarrett, who had been pitting when the caution came out, came back in to get the rest of his stop completed.

As the field restarted on lap 118, Jimmy Spencer passed Gordon on the backstretch to take the lead from him. Gordon remained in second until lap 147 when the yellow flag waved once again for oil on the race track. The drivers came in for another round rubber and fuel, and Gordon came out with the lead after a 14.8 second stop. The restart came on lap 150, but one lap later Rusty Wallace passed Jeff Gordon for the lead and never looked back.

Since the last time that the #24 car had fuel put in it was on lap 147, the team was worried that they might come up about 3 laps short of making it to the end if the race stayed green. However, they didn't need to worry long because the caution that came on lap 158 as a result of Michael Waltrip spinning would lengthen the number of laps they could get out of their tank of gas. Gordon restarted on lap 158 in 2nd place and continued to battle with Ricky Rudd for the position.

The last stop of the day came on lap 200, 50 laps from the end. Jeff was still saying that his car was tight in the center, so the crew made a track bar adjustment to loosen it up. This green-flag stop cost them time, taking 17.4 seconds. Tony Stewart was able to get past Jeff on pit road, which moved him back to 3rd.

Eight laps later, team mate Jerry Nadeau spun off of turn two. These caution laps were welcomed by Gordon, who was losing more and more ground to leader, Rusty Wallace. As the leaders went past pit road, Tony Stewart faked but none of the drivers in the top ten pitted.

The race restarted again on lap 211, and Gordon was getting read to get past Tony Stewart when the caution came out for the last time because of Mark Martin and Ward Burton's incident.

Dale Jarrett's motor went sour toward the end of the race, and as a result he could not finish higher than 24. As a result, Jeff Gordon was able to gain some ground on him in the points standings and now is only 66 points behind Jarrett.

Next weekend, the Winston Cup teams head to Richmond Internation for a Saturday night race under the lights. Stay tuned to JGG for all the race highlights.

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