Murto: Gordon, Patrick shine in Kansas

Jeff Gordon and Danica Patrick were the big stories following the 400-mile NASCAR Sprint Cup race last weekend at the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway.

Gordon grabbed his first win of the year and maintains his point lead, holding off a hard-charging Kevin Harvick at the finish. Harvick, a two-time winner this season, dominated the race, leading 120 of the 267-lap event.

The difference seemed to be pit strategy. Gordon’s crew chief Alan Gustafson brought the 42-year-old veteran down pit road for his final stop of the race a lap before Harvick made his stop. That was enough to put Gordon out front once all the green-flag stops were made. It also helped that Harvick ran out of pit road during that final stop and didn’t have his best stop of the race.

A four-time Cup champion, Gordon said in victory lane that a weight was lifted off his shoulders. Though he had the point lead, he didn’t feel secure about his position in the Chase. The name of the game seems to be “win you’re in,” and Gordon now can prepare to run for a fifth championship.

It was 20 years ago that Gordon won his first Cup race in the 600 at Charlotte. Now he sits third on the all-time win list with 89 victories, 17 on 1.5-mile tracks. The only active driver with more wins on tracks that size is Jimmie Johnson with 18.

The Kansas race proved to be another exciting event for NASCAR, with enough action to keep the fans interested and a couple of grinding wrecks for the highlight reels. But there were strange occurrences as well, such as a portion of the race in which the backstretch was only partially lit after somebody reportedly unplugged an extension cord.

Nothing, however, was more unusual for this racing season than the strong performance put in by Danica Patrick.

The second-year Cup driver qualified in the top 10 for her 57th start, and surprised everybody by staying near the front throughout the race. In fact, she wasn’t just surprising, she was rather impressive and demonstrated skills many forgot she possessed.

She credited part of her performance to a conversation she had with teammate Harvick earlier in the week, in which he essentially told her not to think too much about it, to just stand on the gas. She also said she was behind the wheel of a new car, which she claimed helped maintain speed over long runs and get quick restarts.

The seventh-place finish was the best of her career, besting her eighth at Daytona last year when she became the first woman driver to qualify on the pole for a Cup event. Only Sarah Christian (fifth at Pennsylvania’s Heidelberg Raceway in 1949) and Janet Guthrie (sixth at Bristol in 1977) have better finishes for women in the Cup series.

“It’s days like today that we work hard for,” Patrick told Fox Sports.

The challenge for Patrick now is to continue to be competitive. She has good equipment, and with this run at Kansas and a competitive run at Martinsville last season, she proved she can run competitively on tracks that don’t use restrictor plates. Her future career will depend on her ability to do it consistently.

The NASCAR circus now heads to Charlotte for the all-star race and the 600, neither of which are indicative of the season at large. Drivers either bring home the steering wheel or the trophy in the all-star event, and the 600 is more of an endurance event than any other Cup race; strange things can happen in those final 100 miles.

Nothing strange in the world of Formula One, as Lewis Hamilton won his fourth consecutive race with Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in second. The next race is Monaco, which may be the best opportunity for another manufacturer to grab a win as the tight street circuit may help equalize the advantage held by Mercedes power.

French racer Simon Pagenaud made history by winning the first Indycar race on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Driving for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, it was Pagenaud’s third career Indycar win. Also impressive in the historical event was rookie Jack Hawksworth, who dominated the first half of the race for car owner Bryan Herta.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.