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Gordon wins Kmart 400; Hendrick notches No. 100

by Jenna Fryer

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- If there were any doubts that Jeff Gordon is back to championship form, he answered them Sunday with a milestone victory.

Gordon survived a bad final pit stop that forced him to slice his way through the field, a pair of restarts and a tense battle with Ricky Rudd over the final two laps to win the Kmart 400 at Michigan International Speedway and give Hendrick Motorsports its 100th victory.

"That's a true mark of a championship-caliber team -- to be able to stay calm, regroup and come back in," Gordon said. "That's what we did and that's why this team is so good."

Gordon, coming off two straight disappointing seasons, won for the second consecutive week and the 55th time in his career, and took the points lead by 26 over Dale Jarrett.

And it put Rick Hendrick into the record book as just the third car owner with 100 victories. Petty Enterprises has 271 and Junior Johnson 139.

But Hendrick couldn't be at the track to celebrate the win. His father, "Papa" Joe Hendrick, is scheduled to have heart surgery on Monday. So Hendrick remained in North Carolina to be with him.

So the three Hendrick cars, including Terry Labonte and Jerry Nadeau, donned stickers on their Chevrolet's that said, "Get Well Pop."

"The only thing that takes away from this win right now is that we couldn't have Rick and Pop here," Gordon said. "But I know Rick was excited. He was thrilled and he would have loved to have been here."

Gordon was off to another dominating performance -- he led 137 of the first 174 laps -- when an error on the final pit stop cost him the lead.

He led Rudd and Sterling Marlin into the pits on lap 175 but came out sandwiched between them.

That's when his crew radioed him to come back in because the lug nuts were loose.

Rudd, who had his own tire problems, followed him in and, after a second stop, the two went back on the track in 10th and 11th place with Marlin as the leader.

But they zigzagged their way through the field -- running three-wide across Michigan International Speedway at times -- and were right behind Marlin when a caution came out on lap 189.

"I made some pretty incredible moves to get by some cars," Gordon said. "I only know one way and that's to go for it. When you've got a good car, you've got to put in on the edge."

It returned to green-flag racing with seven laps left, and Gordon got a tremendous jump on the restart. He passed Marlin in Turn 1, taking Rudd with him.

"We had a good car on the long runs, but he could beat us on the get-go," Marlin said. "We ran in the corner on the restart and the car wouldn't stick. Jeff got by us and I knew that was it."

Moments later, Shawna Robinson, the first woman in a Winston Cup race in 12 years, brought out the seventh caution flag of the race with a spin in Turn 2.

After two laps under caution, NASCAR returned the field to green with four laps left.

That's when Gordon and Rudd began their stirring duel.

Rudd looked to make a pass several times, then made his move coming out of Turn 4 with one lap to go. His Ford Taurus went high on the track and looked past Gordon, then changed direction by sliding low and passing Gordon's Chevrolet on the inside inches before the finish line.

Gordon wasted no time in retaking the lead, sweeping up high on the track in Turn 1 to pass Rudd. He then drifted down the track to block Rudd from making another move and held him off around the track and at the finish line by .085 seconds.

"It was just everybody for themselves at the end and we came up second," Rudd said. "The mistake I made was I went in front before the white flag lap. If I had made my move later, I maybe could have held him off. But once he got past me, I knew it was over."

Marlin finished third in a Dodge and was followed by Jeremy Mayfield, Ryan Newman and Hut Stricklin.

Robinson, in a Ford Taurus splashed with pink paint, finished 34th.

"It's better to finish 34th than have a torn-up car," Robinson said. "I'm here to learn and I did that."

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