NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Look Back: 2002
Another year, another sell-out crowd. Would they watch Jeff Gordon defend his inaugural win at Kansas Speedway or would they witness Ryan Newman, 2002 Rookie of the Year contender, improve upon his 2001 second-place finish? In the end, Newman would feel as if he was having déjà vu as Gordon would lead the last 56 laps and finish .618-second ahead of Newman.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. sat on the pole but he would soon give way to rookie Newman on the second lap. Gordon knew that he would have to have a strong run from the beginning to claim his second Kansas Speedway victory in as many years.
The scenario played out just the way Gordon hoped it would, with him visiting victory lane for the third time in 2002 and the 61st time in his career. Gordon would leave Kansas Speedway fourth in the point standings, 109 points behind the point leader Jimmie Johnson. Gordon joined Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick as the only drivers to win an inaugural race at a track and follow it up by winning the next race at the track.
Also, Johnson would become the first rookie to lead the point standings in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this late in the season. Even after taking over the point lead from Mark Martin, Johnson seemed relaxed. “It won’t be a worry until we get to the last couple of races,” said Johnson. “There is just too much to worry about with Talladega and Martinsville.”
The top-10 finish for Johnson would be his 18th of the season and included three wins. He finished the day only five points behind Newman in the Rookie of the Year battle.
The victory allowed Gordon to keep his championship hopes alive, but it wasn’t meant to be. Just a few weeks later, Stewart would clinch the first of his two championships.