LONG POND, Pa. – In a race marred by the death of a fan hit by lightning, Jeff Gordon earned his first victory of the season Sunday, taking advantage of an accident sparked by teammate Jimmie Johnson and going on to win when the race was called because of a downpour preceding the fatal storm.
After the race, Pocono officials said one person died and nine others were injured after a lightning strike in the parking lot behind the grandstand.
You hate to hear something like that, Gordon said. Certainly our thoughts are with them.
Gordon earned his 86th career victory, winning for the first time since September 2011 at Atlanta Motor Speedway to thrust himself into wild-card contention in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
This win meant more than about all the others for Gordon. This was the first time his wife and both of his two young children joined him celebration.
That experience to me today means so much more than anything else, he said.
Johnson inadvertently gave his Hendrick Motorsports teammate the help he needed. Johnson’s No. 48 had a flat tire off a restart and slammed Matt Kenseth into the wall. Kenseth slid down the track and took out Denny Hamlin and three other cars.
With an unexpected opening triggered by the accident, Gordon zagged and zipped the No. 24 through holes like an All-Pro running back, splashing his way to victory.
When I saw the opening to get inside, I was taking it, Gordon said.
It couldn’t have come at a better time. The skies opened and cars were ordered off the track. The race was called moments later with 98 of the 160 scheduled laps completed. Gordon knew he needed wins over the final six races before the Chase cutoff to have any shot at running for a fifth championship during the 10-race playoffs. The win moved him into the second wild-card spot that would guarantee a berth in the field.
Gordon, who also won a rain-shortened race at Pocono in 2007, passed Bill Eilliott for most career wins at Pocono with six.
Gordon has three straight top-six finishes and has finished in the top six in six of his last seven races.
He was due for a breakthrough and kept grinding it out.
The last several weeks, we’ve had something to build on, Gordon said.
Kasey Kahne was second, followed by Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart.
With the storms coming – spotters told their drivers the heavy rain was coming – Johnson was in prime position to follow last week’s win in Indy with another trip to Victory Lane. Johnson had a flat, though, and he made contact with Kenseth. Johnson dropped back but suffered no real damage. Kenseth touched the wall and slid down the track. Hamlin had nowhere to go except right into the side of the No. 17.
Gordon, who was sixth, took off and took the lead.