AVONDALE, Ariz. – Standing in victory lane, celebrating his first trip there since April 5, 2009, Jeff Gordon was giddy, not just about snapping a 66-race winless drought, but because he passed Kyle Busch to do it.
Think about that for a moment – Jeff Gordon, the four-time champ who's now won more races than all but five other drivers in the history of the sport, was jazzed about beating a 25-year-old, championship-less Kyle Busch.
This speaks as much to Busch's talent – he did win two of the three races this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, and finished second in the other – as it does to Gordon's place in the sport right now. He's no longer the active driver with the most championships, a distinction he'd held for the last 10 years; he's not even among the handful of drivers mentioned as potential favorites to win the series title anymore.
Over the last few years, as Jimmie Johnson has caught up to and surpassed him in the championship department, Gordon's greatness has transformed from something that "is" to something that "was." At least, that's what the win column would indicate.
In between his last win and this one, he recorded eight runner-up finishes, wound up third and ninth in the standings and was still very much a top-notch driver. Just not the top driver.
If that troubled his fans, imagine how it weighed on him.
"It hasn't been fun, I'll be honest with you," Gordon said. "Going to the race track and being competitive and battling for wins, that's been my whole motivation throughout my career. … I don't love going out there and finishing 10th or 15th or 20th. I'll be honest, it's depressing. And I know that might not come across the right way, but when you've won 82 races and you've won for Hendrick Motorsports, that pressure is there and those expectations are there not only from the outside but from the inside.
"Today, man, that's what made it so sweet. It's not like we lucked into it. We battled and we worked and we out-raced him."
The win, his 83rd to tie him for fifth-place all time with Cale Yarborough, was signature Gordon, circa 1998. Despite qualifying poorly and making early contact with the wall, he made short work getting to the front. He started 20th and drove into the top 10 by Lap 40.
Unlike in the Daytona 500, Gordon was able to stay out of trouble. Sixty-six laps into the Subway Fresh Fit 500, there was a massive pileup on the backstretch that collected 13 cars, Brian Vickers among them. That brought out a red flag for 14 minutes as officials worked to clean up the mess.
After getting out of his car, Vickers pointed the finger squarely at Matt Kenseth, saying he "door-slammed us" and that the incident would "come back to haunt him."
That accident came just moments after Busch got loose in nearly the same spot on the track, turned down to save his car and ran right into pole sitter Carl Edwards. Busch suffered minimal damage. Edwards hit the wall and his car was destroyed.
"That wreck took the fastest car out of the race," Edwards said.
Gordon was actually part of the incident, as well. As Edwards' car veered up the track, it pinched Gordon into the wall. For Gordon, the damage was minimal. He came to the pits, his crew pulled out a fender and he proceed to drive to the front.
He took his first lead on Lap 77. He'd stay there for 138 of the final 235 laps.
But with 27 laps to go, Gordon found himself in third place, behind Tony Stewart and Busch. The winless streak, it appeared, would live another week.
Stewart took off on the final restart, Busch gave chase and quickly took the lead. Just 21 laps remained for Gordon to get by Stewart, who was on only two fresh tires, before Busch could drive away. Within two laps, Gordon did, then set out to catch Busch, who 24 hours earlier had led all 200 laps in a dominating Nationwide win.
Lap after lap, Gordon cut into Busch's lead. With nine to go, Gordon had caught him. With eight left, he was on his bumper, nudging Busch just enough to his nose underneath and complete the pass. From there, Gordon checked out.
"He's tough," Gordon explained of why he was so ecstatic with passing and beating Busch. "I respect his talent. … To me, there's nothing cooler – maybe if that was with Jimmie [Johnson] – Jimmie and Kyle, to me that's where they're at on tough guys in this sport to beat."
Gordon celebrated by doing a burnout down the frontstretch at PIR. It didn't matter to the 55,000-plus in attendance that it was a less-than-spectacular (lame, in his words) effort. As he got a push from a wrecker back to victory lane – he'd blown his engine in the celebration – Gordon looked to his left and saw something he'd never seen before: every fan was on their feet.
He's come a long way since he was the California kid getting booed because well, he was from California and his mustache wasn't nearly as cool as Earnhardt's. Gordon's always been popular, but never universally so.
But for one day, anyway, he was.
Maybe they were on their feet because he hasn't been to victory lane in a while. Maybe it's because it was someone other than Jimmie Johnson. Doesn't matter. Entering his 19th season, Gordon had won them over. All of them.
"I got out of [my car] down there in the grass and I looked up and, I mean, I didn't see an empty spot," Gordon said. "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."