Jeff Gordon was feeling the cumulative effects of the flu, allergies and laryngitis. Then, at the last minute, he got just the boost he needed today to win his fourth consecutive road course race.
A crash between Ricky Rudd and Ward Burton on the final laps brought out a red flag, allowing Gordon a sip of water and enough composure to hold off Mark Martin and win the Save Mart/Kragen 350 at Sears Point Raceway for the second year.
"We didn't think we could finish today, let alone win it," Gordon said.
Gordon beat Martin by .197 seconds. His string of victories started in 1997 at Watkins Glen, N.Y. He now has four career road course victories, matching Martin.
Gordon, the defending Winston Cup champion, also earned his fourth victory of the season, breaking a chain of three consecutive second-place finishes.
Starting from the pole in his No. 24 Chevrolet, Gordon led 80 of 112 laps on the 10-turn, 1.949-mile road course nestled in northern California's wine country.
The race was marred by seven cautions, and the final laps were especially messy.
Bobby Labonte, in sixth place, hit a tire barrier on Lap 103 and knocked around Joe Nemechek, bringing a full-course caution. After the restart, Rudd ran off the course and crashed into Burton.
A red flag came out to clear the track and finish the race under a green flag. It was the first red flag since rain stopped the TranSouth Financial 400 at Darlington five races into the season.
After the race resumed, Martin was unable to overtake Gordon on the final three laps.
"That red flag didn't hurt at all," Gordon said. "The tires kind of went away there at the end for everybody, but I was able to get refreshed and make a good effort those last three laps."
While Gordon admitted that all the cautions helped him, Martin felt otherwise.
"They crippled us a little bit because I thought it was better the longer we ran," Martin said. "[But] they were there, it was reality and you have to deal with it."
John Andretti, who started in the 31st position, finished third, followed by Rusty Wallace and Jimmy Spencer.
Gordon re-took the lead from Martin on the 31st lap and held on to it until the 51st lap, when he ran off the track on the seventh turn. The mistake put Gordon in third behind Martin and Jeff Burton.
But Gordon regained the lead and Martin kept on Gordon's tail the rest of the way. On the final lap, Martin tried valiantly to pass Gordon, but couldn't manage it.
Gordon was replenished with water on every pit stop, and at one point there was word he might use an alternate driver to finish.
But Gordon said he never considered handing over the wheel.
"I knew once I cooled down and got some bottled water, I could wrap it up," he said. "I wanted to get it done and finish the race."
It was Gordon's 46th career win.
CAPTION: Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Lysol 200 victory gives him a 129-point lead in the Busch Series standings.
CAPTION: An ailing Jeff Gordon (24) was in front of pack early. He held on to win Save Mart/Kragen 350 after late crash helped him to fourth victory.