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Gordon Makes A Return To His Checkered Past

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, March 1 2011

Jeff Gordon takes the checkered flag at Phoenix International Raceway to provide NASCAR with yet another popular finish. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

For a guy who used to collect race wins by the bunch, it probably was beginning to feel like this day would never come.

Jeff Gordon, the perennial contender, went 66 NASCAR Sprint Cup races without taking the checkeredflag at the front of the pack. He came close a number of times, toting up 22 top-five finishes, including eight second-place runs.

The doubters were growing. Why couldn’t the four-time Cup champion close out races any more? Was this a sign that Gordon, who will turn 40 in August, had lost the inner fire that made him an immediate star when he took over Rick Hendrick’s No. 24 Chevrolet in 1993.

But a new season and a new crew chief in Alan Gustafson turned the trick as Gordon passed Kyle Busch with eight laps to go Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway and went on to his 83rd career win, tying him with Cale Yarborough for fifth on NASCAR’s all-time win list.

His next victory, which probably won’t take nearly two years to get, would place Gordon in a tie for third with Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison.

But, despite all that success, this latest win took a painfully long time to get.

“Pinch me! Pinch me!’’ the happy and relieved Gordon said in Victory Lane.

Busch, who missed out on his second career sweep of NASCAR’s three biggest series in the same weekend because of Gordon, wasn’t a bit surprised by what transpired on the one-mile Phoenix oval.

“I think he was on a mission today, that’s for sure,’’ Busch said. “And, when Jeff Gordon has a good

Jeff Gordon pops from his car in Victory Lane Sunday. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR)

car and he has the opportunity to beat you, he’s going to beat you so.  There’s no doubt about that.  He’s my hero and I’ve always watched him and what he’s been able to accomplish over the years.  It’s no surprise that he beat us.’’

Five-time reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, Gordon’s teammate, finished third. It was a long tough day for Johnson, but he was happy for the man who mentored him and is part owner of his No. 48 Chevy.

Johnson said this was a particularly positive result, considering that Gordon and fellow Hendrick drivers Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. all exchanged crew chiefs and Martin and Earnhardt swapped race shops.

“I know it means a lot to him with what has gone on from the end of the season until now,’’ Johnson explained. “Not only did we switch around the shops and the drivers, but the over‑the‑wall guys have changed dramatically on all four teams. Our cars, the setups, there’s a lot of new stuff underneath those familiar paint jobs on the Hendrick cars.’’

For Gordon, all that off-track stuff was just background music for a result that gave him and his team a huge boost just two races into the new season.

Gordon led the most laps in the race, but he fell behind Busch on the final pit stop. Fortunately, he had time to catch the leader on the final green-flag run.

“I don’t really care how we do it, we just want to get to victory lane,’’ Gordon said. “But to do it that way and to see the fans reaction … I mean, we beat Kyle Busch. We were the only one’s to beat Kyle Busch this weekend and he’s so tough to beat.’’

“Man, what an awesome, awesome feeling it is when you’ve got the car right like that and they give you 20 (laps) to go and it’s your job to go get it done and you’ve got what you need to go do that. I thought, `Even if I catch him, what am I going to do with him?’ We caught him, he got loose and I got underneath him.’’

The two cars banged together, but it was only Busch’s No. 18 that slowed for just a moment, allowing Gordon to pull away.

“It’s been a long time, I know,’’ Gordon said. “I’m going to savor this one so much, but I’ve got to say thanks to the fans. I mean not only the fans at home .. I’ve been tweeting lately for the first time and all of the stuff that people have been saying, the motivation has been unbelievably inspiring. And then to see that crowd stick around to see my really lame burnout, because i stink at them, but they love that show. Man we hope we can give them some more shows like that this year.’’

Asked about tying Yarborough on the win list, Gordon was equally excited.

“I’m such a huge fan of Cale’s,’’ Gordon noted.. “One of the first conversations I ever had with anybody when (I) came to the Cup series was Cale Yarborough. He wanted me to drive his car and I actually tested his car. He’s (was) just an amazing race car driver.

“I’ll be honest,’’ he added. “I didn’t know if we were ever going to get past 82 (wins). The way things have been going the past couple of years, you lose a little bit of that spark and you wonder what it’s going to take to get to Victory Lane. But I can tell you after today that it takes a team like this and a race car like that and we’re having a blast …  after today, I am really excited about this season.’’

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, March 1 2011
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