It had been 66 races since four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon stood in Victory Lane. Yet, that all changed on Sunday after Gordon used his bumper to move past Kyle Busch with less than ten laps to go at the Phoenix International Raceway.
Looking just as happy as rookie Trevor Bayne did last weekend in Daytona, Gordon relished the victory after nearly two years without a win. Sunday’s victory was the 83rd of Gordon’s career, tying him with Cale Yarborough for fifth on the all-time win list. It also marked his first win with new crew chief Alan Gustafson after the major off-season shake up at Hendrick Motorsports.
“Are you kidding me? Pinch me man, pinch me,” Gordon said in Victory Lane. “I don't really care how we do it, we just want to get to victory lane. But to do it that way and to see the fans reaction – I mean we beat Kyle Busch. We were the only ones to beat Kyle Busch this weekend and he's so tough to beat. What a race car. Just so thankful.”
This weekend, Busch was the man to beat in Phoenix. Scoring the win in Friday night’s Camping World Truck Series race and Saturday’s Nationwide Series event, Busch was on track to score his second weekend sweep until Gordon’s car came to life.
“I think he was on a mission today, that's for sure and when Jeff Gordon has a good car and he has the opportunity to beat you, he's going to beat you,” Busch said. “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.”
Busch’s second place finish did not come easily, however, as he was forced to overcome struggles early in the 313-lap event. After taking the lead early, Busch’s No. 18 fell back in the pack. Racing hard in traffic around cars on different pit strategies, Busch caught the wall trying to go three-wide following a restart on Lap 39.
Feeling like a ping-pong ball on the track, Busch was moved out of the way for position by Ryan Newman on Lap 59 and immediately shot down the track to get back in line – the only problem was Carl Edwards was already there. The contact sent Edwards’ No. 99 over the curb on the backstretch, launching the car into the air. Going into Turn 3, the brakes on Edwards’ car failed and sent him into the outside wall, taking Gordon’s No. 24 with him. Behind them, Kevin Harvick’s No. 29 was turned as he slowed to avoid the incident.
Coming into the day the points leader, the pole sitter and carrying the same colors as the race sponsor, Edwards was optimistic about his chances for the win, but was forced to help his crew make repairs to the car instead.
“I’m not exactly sure what happened. I’ll have to talk to Kyle about it,” Edwards said. “I thought at first he was just frustrated and he turned left to get back in line and he didn’t know I was there, but I watched the tape and I think he really did get loose. He hit me hard and I was left with nothing. I got rammed to the infield. If I would have turned right, I don’t think I could have made the corner to clear that curb, so that’s just the way it is. That is the fastest car at the race track. It’s just a shame it’s on jack stands. We’ll get it put back together, though, and we’ll get all the points we can. We can win this championship. I’ve never had a run like this where our cars are this fast. We’ve just got to keep digging.”
With the new point system making poor finishes even more damaging in the long run, Edwards and his crew went to work getting his car back on track. When Edwards rejoined the race, he was 39th many laps down. With so many cars in the garage, Edwards was able to climb his way to 28th place when the checkered flag fell, but still dropped 11 spots in the standings to 12th.
“He was mad, for sure, and he was frustrated, definitely,” Busch said after the race. “You can see that entirely out there the whole rest of the race; any time I got within five car lengths of his rear bumper he would start checking up early, getting into the corners and slowing down and getting more space between me and the other guys. Finally after about 20 laps of that, he let me go. It was weird. He just he was playing.”
Despite being collected in the wreck, Gordon and his crew were able to survey the damage, make the proper repairs and, thanks to a bit of racing luck, found themselves back in contention for the race lead in only a handful of laps.
“I thought we were done,” Gordon said. “I went to the outside and saw all the wrecked cars. I saw Carl Edwards’ car torn up and I went to the outside myself and said, ‘I don’t think this is a good idea’; because I thought he really might have some serious [damage] and he did. Sure enough, when we got into Turn 3 he just drifted right up into me and put me in the wall. It wasn’t his fault. He had a left-front tire going down. But it was just wrong place, wrong time and I hit the wall hard. I thought we were done. But I hit it square. And these guys just did a fantastic job repairing the car and then we went back out there and then the track position and the pit strategy actually ended up falling in our favor. Here I found myself up there in the top three with a car that was capable of winning. It was unbelievable.”
What helped Gordon climb back into contention was a Daytona-style wreck that caught up 14 cars. It all started following a restart on Lap 67 when Matt Kenseth raced side-by-side with Brian Vickers at the front of the field. As they worked off Turn 2 and through the dogleg, the pair made contact which cut the left rear tire on Vickers’ No. 83 Red Bull Toyota. Unable to keep the car under him, Vickers veered into the outside wall as the rest of the field stacked up. The ensuing accident included cars such as Jamie McMurray, Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer, Regan Smith and David Reutimann.
Clearly unhappy with Kenseth, Vickers stood in the garage and placed the blame solely on the Roush Fenway Racing driver.
“The 17 (Matt Kenseth) ran us into the wall, door slammed us into the corner coming out of turn two, just 67 laps into a very, very long race,” Vickers said. “I felt like it was unnecessary and I’m sure it will come back to him.”
Able to continue on to a 12th place finish, Kenseth was left baffled as to why Vickers pointed the blame his way.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t know there was an incident,” Kenseth said. “I was surprised when I got out of the car and everybody said he was mad at me. I’m not sure for what. Maybe I’ll watch the replay and see something different, but from where I was he kind of held me close to the middle of the corner on the restart, which you should, and I came off the corner and I never even felt us touch. I know I left plenty of room to the wall and I looked in my mirror and saw everybody crashing. I really don’t have any idea. Maybe I’ll watch it and see something else, but I really don’t know what he’s talking about.”
“They were driving like it was the last lap!” Clint Bowyer said as his crew worked vigorously behind him. “Man, if we keep this up we’ll only about four cars to end all these races. I have no idea what happened. Everybody was checked-up all over the place and running into the back of us and we got crashed. But it’s just stupid. To be racing this hard this early in a race; we’re all smarter than this.”
With all of the wrecking that took place early on, the points got another shake up just two races into the season. Heading to their home town of Las Vegas next weekend, brothers Kyle and Kurt Busch sit atop the standings with only three points between them. Tony Stewart, AJ Allmendinger, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte, Ryan Newman, Juan Pablo Montoya and David Gilliland make the rest of the top 10.
Coming off a heart-warming story in Daytona, NASCAR seems to be back on an upswing. The stands were full on Sunday and the story of the championship-caliber veteran ending a 66-race winless streak simply carries the momentum created last week in Daytona.
“I got out of [the car] down there in the grass, and I looked up, and I mean, I didn't see an empty spot [in the stands],” Gordon said of his post-race celebration. “And then I was like, that's cool and I mean, I was feeling the emotions but to see [the fans] react like that. And then the push truck pushed me around and to see them all the way down doing that, I was like, I don't know if I've ever experienced something like that. And that to me made it all worth it right there to have that feeling.”
With no football, no college football and really no other sport to compete with for ratings – the NBA and NHL have yet to hit their playoff stretch – it appears NASCAR’s momentum will continue to grow over the coming weeks. Great racing, great stories and great action have not only attracted the casual fan, but appear to have kept them from changing the channel. Now, the question is can the momentum carry on through the entire 36-race season?
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