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Gordon heats up at Darlington

By By JENNA FRYER , AP Auto Racing Writer
DARLINGTON, S.C. — As steam poured from his engine, Jeff Gordon figured his chance at victory had gone up in smoke.
Any other season, it would have. But in this year of near-perfection for Hendrick Motorsports, nothing ever goes wrong.
And Denny Hamlin is pretty sick of it.
Gordon overcame an overheating engine, he said with five laps to go there was no way he’d make it to his third victory of the season Sunday at Darlington Raceway. Hendrick has won four straight races, eight of nine overall, and remained perfect in the five Car of Tomorrow events.
When it did, even though Gordon gambled and didn’t make a final pit stop when most of the field did with 23 laps to go, Gordon won for the third time in four races and maintained a 231-point lead over Jimmie Johnson in the Nextel Cup standings.
One that Hamlin was a little bitter about after his second-place finish.
Hamlin, who led a race-high 179 laps, suffered when his crew dropped a pair of lug nuts on a late pit stop. It cost him a shot at running for the win, and he has finished second or third in four COT races.
It was extremely frustrating for Hamlin, who has led a series-high 563 laps in the five races the car has been used.
Hamlin was also critical of NASCAR for not calling a caution for obvious debris in the closing laps. Had the yellow flag waved, Hamlin was confident he would have beaten Gordon.
Even Gordon admitted that NASCAR should have thrown a yellow. But he didn’t complain because he believed a debris caution with 17 to go when Gordon had a huge lead was bogus.
Rain washed out the race Saturday night and it was rescheduled for Sunday, making it the first NASCAR race run on Mother’s Day since 1986. Although Gordon’s mother left the track when it appeared his motor wouldn’t last, he was still able to celebrate the win with his pregnant bride.
Gordon and wife Ingrid Vandebosch are expecting their first child, a daughter, at the end of June and this was her last race before the birth.
Johnson, last week’s winner, finished third for Hendrick. Ryan Newman was fourth, followed by Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. capped a frenzied week that began when he said he’s leaving DEI at the end of the season by finishing eighth.
But Earnhardt said strong support from his crew kept everyone focused.
Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton, teammates at Richard Childress Racing, rounded out the top 10.
Gordon’s radiator was on the verge of busting for the latter part of the race, with thick steam blowing from under the hood as he ran second to Johnson.
But a caution with 23 laps to go changed the race, with Johnson ducking onto pit road while Gordon gambled to stay out. Gordon took over the lead, Johnson restarted in seventh, and no one came close to challenging Gordon again.
Johnson thought he would quickly work his way back to the front on new tires, but had no regrets after traffic prevented the defending champion from scoring his fifth win of the season.
Gordon never felt confident that his engine would go the distance. He got terrific jumps on every restart, needing the air to cool down his motor, and said he didn’t pit with his teammate because he worried the engine would overheat during the stop.