By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor
A two-mile, high banked behemoth in the backyard of the big three American automakers, Michigan International Speedway has played host to NASCAR since 1969 and will do so again this weekend as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the track for Sunday’s running of the Firekeepers Casino 400. Before we focus on the here and now, we’ll take a look back into the past in this week’s “Throwback Thursday Theater” and the 2001 Kmart 400, which saw the resurgence of a champion and a stirring duel for the win.
After two seasons in which he failed to finish in the top-five in the points despite 10 wins over those two seasons, Jeff Gordon was on a roll as the series made its way to Michigan in June 2001. Gordon had won at Las Vegas earlier in the season and followed that up with a win at Dover 10 races later. The Dover win came just a week before Michigan, giving Gordon a ton of momentum for his 17th start at the track. Gordon would score the pole for the race, with Ricky Rudd starting alongside in second.
Though Rudd would get the jump on the start, Gordon powered into the lead by lap three and showed that if anyone wanted to win this race, they would have to go through him to do so. Gordon would lead 137 of the first 174 laps, but an error on pit road when the leaders come down to make their final pit stops nearly cost Gordon the race. Gordon came into the pits as the race leader ahead of Rudd and Sterling Marlin, but came out in second place, only to get called back to pit road for loose lug nuts. Sound familiar?
Rudd also had pit road issues of his own and was forced to make a second stop at the same time that Gordon did, dropping the two to 10th and 11th place while Marlin was in the lead. When the race went back green, Gordon and Rudd masterfully made their way back through the field to find themselves just behind Marlin when the penultimate caution of the day came out at lap 190.
When the green flag dropped with seven laps remaining, Gordon got the jump on Marlin to retake the lead, bringing Rudd along in tow, but the two would have to wait to settle the race amongst themselves as the final caution of the day came out a lap later at lap 195. After two laps under caution, the race went back green for the final time with four laps to go.
As the green flag flew, Gordon and Rudd pulled away from Marlin and the rest of the field to make it a two car race to the finish. Rudd stayed tucked in behind Gordon for the first two and a half laps before faking high and then pulling his No. 28 Ford alongside Gordon off of Turn 4 heading to the white flag. Rudd had the advantage at the white flag, but Gordon would not give up that easily and powered back by Rudd heading into Turn 1 for the final time. Though Rudd gave it his all to try and get back by Gordon before the checkered flag flew, Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet was too strong as Gordon scored his third win of the season and the 100th win for Hendrick Motorsports.
“There are so many things special about this day. Of course, it was an exciting race, my hat’s off to Sterling Marlin and Ricky Rudd, what a great race. This one’s for Pop (Papa Joe Hendrick), I know you’re watching Pop, we’re with you buddy and just praying for you. Man, I’ll tell you, what an awesome victory this was for this DuPont Chevrolet. I want to thank Pepsi, Quaker State, of course DuPont, GMAC, Chevrolet. I want to thank Frito’s too. They’re on board and we don’t get a chance to thank them enough. It’s pretty awesome to get out 100th win for Hendrick Motorsports. Rick (Hendrick) said he was going to be here when we did it, but unfortunately he’s not,” said Gordon.
“I was thinking ‘Man, Yates makes some horsepower.’ I knew if I got the lead, I’d have the preferred line, but he could get some real momentum coming off the corner. When that thing would draft you buddy, there was no holding it back. Ricky’s such a great driver and he made a smart move and went to the high side of me down in (Turn) 3 and 4 and got a run. When he got inside of me, I thought I was done, but I tried to stay up beside him and luckily, I slowed his momentum down a little bit. I never drove into Turn 1 as hard as I drove in that last lap. His car kicked sideways and he checked up and I just jumped back into it and the thing stuck. He was coming even there at the line. It was an incredible race. It’s awesome to win ones like that.”