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Gordon ends 66-race winless skid
by Matt Taliaferro
Jeff Gordon looked and sounded more like an unlikely 20 year-old Daytona 500 winner than a 20-year veteran with four titles in Phoenix International Raceway’s Victory Lane. But when a driver, particularly one as decorated as Gordon, has just snapped a 66-race winless skid, yelling, “Pinch me man, pinch me!” is understandable.
Charging past Kyle Busch with nine laps remaining in the Subway Fresh Fit 500, Gordon pulled away from the field to the delight of the crowded grandstands on Sunday to record his first win since April 2009.
“I drove in easy to try to get a good run off of two and not let him do the swap-over,” Gordon said of the race-winning pass. “I kind of felt him on my right side and my car got real loose and we banged a little bit and slipped the racetrack and my spotter said ‘clear,’ and I drove off and I looked up and he was three or four car lengths behind me and I'm like, ‘Yes, let's go.’ Then it was just putting some laps to go.”
Busch held on for second, while Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman rounded out the top 5.
The win, Gordon’s 83rd career Cup victory, tied him with Cale Yarborough for fifth all-time. It was also his first with crew chief Alan Gustafson, whom team owner Rick Hendrick paired with Gordon in an extensive driver/team swap during the offseason.
Despite leading a race-high 138 laps, the weekend was not without its tenuous moments for Gordon and crew. None of Hendrick Motorsports’ four entries qualified higher than 20th, a fact that had Hendrick worried on Saturday.
“I don't know about them (Gordon and Gustafson) but I was sure down after I got off the plane yesterday afternoon (after qualifying),” Hendrick said. “I talked to them and they said, ‘We are pretty good, we are good in race trim, the car feels good. We just didn't have the speed and I think we'll be OK today.’”
While they did have the speed, Gordon thought they were a far cry from OK when he was involved in an accident on Lap 60. However, the damage turned out to be largely cosmetic, and once racing resumed, the car picked up where it left off, slicing through the field.
“I thought we were done,” Gordon said of the wreck. “When I hit the wall, I hit it hard over there, when Carl (Edwards) had his problems and just went in him outside of (turn) three and he just drifted up — not his fault, I think he had a left front tire go down or something — and put us in the wall and I thought we were done.
“I came into pit road and Alan orchestrated those guys fixing it and he said, ‘No, man, I think it looks all right.’ They dropped the green and it felt OK.”
A 14-car melee littered the backstretch on the ensuing restart, but 11 laps after the clean up was complete, Gordon sprinted to the lead for the first time
“We only made a half-lap and they wrecked on the back straightaway and they all came to pit road and we were sitting there like fourth. And then we drove up, took the lead or something not too far after that and I was like, wow, this is (an) unbelievable sequence of events and turnaround. And I knew at that time, we had a car that could win.”
Getting the win came down to a restart after the event’s eighth caution period with 22 laps remaining. Tony Stewart led the field to green with Busch at his side and Gordon in arrears. Busch, with two fresher tires than Stewart, quickly jumped out to a sizable lead. But Gordon’s machine proved to be at its best in crunch time. Moving up to Busch’s bumper, Gordon loosened up the Toyota as the two raced out of Turn 4 and made the decisive pass.
“When you put pressure on a guy that's leading and you start creeping up on him, you see them trying harder and harder and hanging the car out ask doing things that allows you to gain more confidence in your car and what you're doing,” Gordon explained. “All I was thinking about was don't make mistake. Take advantage of him in the areas that your car is strong and his isn't and that's what I did and I was able to get to him and I got to him off of four and he slipped up a little bit and I got my nose underneath him.
“You know, the way it worked out, I got by him way easier than I thought that I would.”
The wins for the Gordon/Gustafson combo may not be any easier to earn as the season unfolds, but if Sunday’s performance is any indication, they’ll certainly be more plentiful.