DARLINGTON, S.C. — It was the Mother’s Day race that wasn’t supposed to be — with a finish that still raises a few eyebrows.
NASCAR, by intent, had not raced on Mother’s Day since 1986 and had no plans to do so in 2007 at Darlington Raceway with the Dodge Avenger 500, which was slated to be held the Saturday evening prior.
But the weather did not cooperate as rain began about four hours prior to the scheduled 7 p.m. start time and increased in intensity until the race was postponed at 9 p.m.
It was run the following day, May 14, beginning at 1 p.m. and finishing with Jeff Gordon pulling off an improbable victory for his seventh and final checkered flag at the track “Too Tough to Tame.”
Steam poured out of Gordon’s overheating engine for most of the last hour of the race, and with five laps to go, the four-time NASCAR Cup Series champ didn’t think he’d make it to the finish line.
“Obviously the first people I’ve got to thank is the guys as Hendrick (Motorsports) engine shop because there’s no way that thing ever should have made it,” Gordon said on Fox television following the race. “I mean, we were pegged on all the gauges … when you see the water pressure go up that high and it’s spewing out water, there’s no way that thing should make it.”
But it did — thanks in part to a late gamble by Gordon. With 23 laps to go, the majority of the field made one last pit stop, but Gordon stayed out and captured his third victory in four races.
“There at the end we had a great car; just didn’t have the track position — Jimmie Johnson had it,” he said. “When those guys came in to pit, it was just a great call by (crew chief) Steve Letarte.
“What an amazing year we’re having.”
The victory did not come without some controversy, however. Denny Hamlin, now a three-time Cup race winner at Darlington, led for 179 laps but fell back when his crew dropped a pair of lug nuts on a late pit stop.
He wound up second, but believed he could have won if NASCAR had called a late caution for debris on the track.
“Somebody’s entire fender and underbody was on the race track,” Hamlin told reporters afterward. “I literally pumped my fist in the car because I knew a caution was going to come out. And of course, if caution comes out, it’s game over. Instead, Hendrick gets another break.”
Gordon himself was a little surprised as well, but pointed to what he thought was an unnecessary caution for debris that was called with 17 laps to go.
“There absolutely should have been a caution there at the end — but there shouldn’t have been one before it,” Gordon told reporters. “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.