Jeff Gordon keeps learning and getting better.
The Kid learned a lesson Sunday about conserving fuel and won his seventh race in 15 starts this season, taking the checkered flag at the inaugural California 500 just seconds before running out of gas.
The 25-year-old wunderkind of NASCAR Winston Cup racing was leading late in the 250-lap event on the two-mile oval at the new California Speedway in a tight battle with Mark Martin.
Martin, who came into the race with a string of eight straight top-five finishes and trailed Gordon by only 46 points in the series standings, kept the pressure on the youngster and finally passed him for the lead on lap 234.
He began to pull away, but was forced to stop for a splash of gas six laps later, giving the lead back to Gordon, who stayed out front the rest of the way, easily fending off Hendrick Motorsports teammate Terry Labonte in a duel of Chevrolet Monte Carlos.
But neither Gordon nor Labonte knew for sure if he had enough gas to finish the 500-mile event.
“I could tell Terry was concerned, too,” Gordon said. “When he let up, I’d let up, too. But our crew did a great job calculating the fuel mileage. It ran out as I was heading into (turn) three on the lap after the race was over.”
Gordon drove the last 55 laps - 110 miles - without stopping. He coasted to the end of his victory lap.
“I learned how to conserve fuel today,” said Gordon as he began to celebrate his 26th career victory. “I never had to do that before. It was pretty interesting.”
Gordon, who led six times for a race-high 113-laps, crossed the finish line 1.074 seconds - about 15 car-lengths - ahead of Labonte, the defending Winston Cup champion. Labonte made his final pit stop one lap after Gordon.
“I lost a lot of time on my last pit stop,” Labonte explained. “I had a bad vibration and I had to come in real slow. That was the distance we were behind at the end. It was a good run for us. We just didn’t have enough to win.”
Ricky Rudd, also stretching his gas, finished third, followed by Ted Musgrave, Jimmy Spencer and Bobby Labonte.
A crowd estimated at 85,000 was on hand for the first Winston Cup race in Southern California since Riverside International Raceway, a road course about 15 miles east of Fontana, closed in 1988.
Spokane’s Chad Little finished 19th and earned $28,575.