WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (AP) — Jeff Gordon once was the master of Watkins Glen International. Now, he can’t seem to catch a break at the storied road course.

Relegated to starting 31st after the worst qualifying effort of his career, the four-time Cup champion was making headway despite some damage to his No. 24 Chevy in Monday’s rain-delayed race at Watkins Glen International.

WGI is a road course equivalent of Talladega Superspeedway, always capable of precipitating a big crash. Last year an 11-car pileup in turn 11 caused a 43-minute stoppage. On Monday, a multicar crash involving Gordon and Sam Hornish Jr. on lap 63 brought out a 19-minute red flag.

Kasey Kahne caused it when he dived inside Hornish coming out of turn 9 and sent Hornish off onto the grass on the left side. Hornish’s No. 77 Dodge caromed off a tire barrier and back onto the track, and Gordon’s No. 24 Chevy slammed head-on into it, spinning violently around into the guard rail lining the track.

Both Gordon and Hornish climbed from their cars and were uninjured.

“It’s just not what I needed,” said Gordon, who suffers from chronic back pain. “You take three or four steps forward, take a hit like that, and take a couple back. I knew he was going to ricochet off. I just hoped I could get by him.

“It took a toll on my back again,” Gordon said. “If we were going to Bristol next week, I’d be concerned. Every time I take a hit, it seems to recover. We’ll be all right.”

Gordon completed 61 of 90 laps and finished 37th, his first DNF of the season, and remains third in the standings.

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HENDRICK GOES BUST: Hendrick Motorsports had a rough day at Watkins Glen International on Monday.

Jimmie Johnson started on the pole seeking the first road course victory of his impressive career and finished 12th. Mark Martin started 28th and finished 23rd. And Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. started even deeper in the field, were involved in crashes, and finished 37th and 39th.

Heck, Johnson didn’t even lead the first lap — Kurt Busch passed him on the first turn of the race — and spun out once on his own.

“We are getting smarter and I’m learning a lot,” said Johnson, who did led once, for four laps. “We fought hard and we got our first pole, so we had some bright spots.”

Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have yet to win in 16 road races.

“I watched guys drive away from me,” said Johnson, who was fourth in June on the road course at Sonoma. “I just have to keep working on it. I will get it sorted out.”

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POINTS PATROL: Just four races remain before the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship begins at Richmond. Only the top 12 drivers in points qualify, and all eyes were on the leaderboard after Monday’s race at Watkins Glen.

Kyle Busch entered the race in 13th place and left in 13th, but he gained 44 points on 12th-place Matt Kenseth.

Kenseth actually entered the day in 11th, a point ahead of Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle, whose fifth-place finish bumped him up to 10th, two points ahead of Mark Martin.

Busch led twice in the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing for 15 laps, but he was passed in the late stages of the race by Carl Edwards and finished right behind him in fourth.

Edwards wore a big smile afterward. He had started 33rd and posted his best career finish on a road course.

“All I knew is I wanted to be in front of the 18,” said Edwards, who remained sixth in the standings. “The difference between fourth and third isn’t much, but it’s for morale. To make ground on 13th, that’s the mission.”

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STEWART-GORDON RACING: It’s been nine years since Tony Stewart rammed Jeff Gordon into the blue guard rail on just the second lap of the Cup race at Watkins Glen International.

The altercation spoiled the chances of both drivers for a shot at victory — Stewart finished sixth, Gordon 23rd — and the two ended up in a memorable shouting match in the garage area after Steve Park took the checkered flag.

“I’ll slam you into the wall the first chance I get!” Gordon shouted at Stewart after both emerged from their cars.

“Come over here!” Stewart shouted back.

Both drivers had to be restrained, but they’ve since become friends with a lot of respect for one another.

Now, they’re even sort of teammates. Stewart’s new team, Stewart-Haas Racing, gets its engines from Gordon’s employer, Hendrick Motorsports, and both teams exchange data.

“We finally get to work together,” Stewart said. “We’ve been rivals so long. It’s been fun to work with him.”

Stewart’s foray into being an owner-driver has been impressive. He’s leading the standings by a wide margin — 240 points ahead of three-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson — with four races remaining before the Chase for the championship begins.

Gordon has mixed emotions about trailing Stewart far back in third.

“It’s cool to sort of be on the same side of the fence and pick one another’s brains,” said Gordon, who has won his four Cup championships with Hendrick. “But I don’t want to get beat by our own stuff.”

That’s exactly what happened for the third time this year on Monday. Stewart won at Watkins Glen for the fifth time, a Cup record and one more victory than Gordon has on the historic course.

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SPARKPLUGS: Tony Stewart’s victory Monday at Watkins Glen came from the 13th starting spot. Steve Park’s win in 2000 came from 18th, the lowest for a winner at the track. … Six drivers who won a race last season still have yet to win in 2009: Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman. … Max Papis was the highest-finishing rookie in eighth.


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