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 the finish - to race to his third victory of the season yesterday at Darlington Raceway. Hendrick has won four straight races, eight of nine overall, and remained perfect in the five Car of Tomorrow events.

"I can't believe that thing lasted," Gordon said of his motor, which had thick steam streaming out of it for the last hour of the race. "There's no way that thing should have ever made it."

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.

"That's the way you win races right there," said Gordon, a seven-time Darlington winner. "What an amazing year we're having."

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.

"We gave away another one to Hendrick Motorsports," Hamlin said. "It's a shame. This has got to end. We have to win a race sooner or later. Everybody will talk about how Hendrick won another race, but this was our race."

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.

"Somebody's entire fender and underbody was on the race track," Hamlin said. "I literally pumped my fist in the car 'cause I knew a caution was going to come out. And of course, if caution comes out, its game over. Instead, Hendrick gets another break."

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.

"There absolutely should have been a caution there at the end - but there shouldn't have been one before it," Gordon said. "There at the end - debris, oil, everything you can imagine - was on that race track and that comes back to the inconsistency. I am glad they didn't throw it at the end, but I didn't understand why they threw it earlier.

"It can work with you or against you. Today it worked for us."

Johnson, last week's winner, finished third for Hendrick. Ryan Newman was fourth.

Rain washed out the race Saturday night and it was rescheduled for yesterday, 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.

"It was fantastic to just think that here in about 6 or 7 weeks, she is going to be a mother," Gordon said. "She had a little tear in her eye, definitely her emotions and the hormones are flowing right now.

"She knew, too, that this was her last weekend to travel before she has the baby, so I think that meant a lot to her to be able to pull that off before she's stuck at home for a little while." *