TALLADEGA, Ala. - As beer cans bounced around his car, Jeff Gordon crossed the finish line yesterday for win No. 77 - breaking a tie with the late Dale Earnhardt on NASCAR's career victory list.
It was only fitting that his win in the Aaron's 499 race happened at Talladega Superspeedway, where Earnhardt - who would have been 56 yesterday - won 10 times in his Cup career.
But it was anticlimactic and confusing, ending under caution to leave Gordon unsure if he had actually won and taken over sixth place on the wins list.
"Is it over?" he radioed his crew. "Is it over? Is it official?"
Nobody knew after two separate accidents on the first lap of a three-lap shootout to the finish froze the field and had NASCAR scrambling to make sense of the finish.
Gordon, who was 14th on a restart with 10 laps to go, stormed to the lead a second before NASCAR called a caution after David Reutimann's engine failed and dumped oil all over the track.
It set up a three-lap sprint to the finish, but NASCAR makes only one attempt to complete it. If caution comes out, the race instantly ends. So when Elliott Sadler bumped the back of Greg Biffle to trigger a wreck, the race was effectively over.
But Tony Stewart was knocked into the wall far ahead of that accident and went spinning down the track into the inside wall. He was fuming as the field passed by him under caution, angrily gesturing at Jamie McMurray.
The fans, meanwhile, figured out that Gordon, who tied Earnhardt last week in Phoenix, was the victor and reacted with the shower of beer cans. The debris cut Gordon's celebration short, he didn't do the customary celebratory burnout, instead dodging the cans as he headed straight to Victory Lane.
It was fan reaction Dale Earnhardt Jr. had tried to stave off earlier this week when he asked his fans - who dominate the Talladega grandstands - to throw toilet paper instead of beer cans out of safety concerns.
Track officials warned during prerace activities that fans caught throwing anything onto the track would be arrested, and police officers were stationed in the seats. But it didn't matter as Gordon was declared the winner and his crew members called for security help to get their spotter out of the stands.
Gordon was understanding of the fan reaction.
"There are a lot of fans out there who are Earnhardt fans who don't want to see [the record] broken," Gordon said. *