Jeff Gordon turns back the clock
AVONDALE, Ariz. -- I wrote a column on Friday listing five ways NASCAR could keep the momentum going from Trevor Bayne's surprising victory in the Daytona 500.
Clearly, I left one out: Jeff Gordon.
The gnarly old girl of Phoenix International Raceway went out with a bang, and she took a bunch of good drivers with her.
Gordon was not one of them. This old pro has some grit and gumption left in him, after all.
Gordon's 66-race winless streak is over. He did it the hard way, outracing the most talented young driver in the business at the end.
Gordon gave Kyle Busch the old bump-and-run with eight laps to go and took the checkered flag on a wild day of destruction, the last hurrah for the 21-year-old PIR pavement.
"Oh, man, are you kidding me?" Gordon said as he climbed out of the car. "Pinch me, man. I don't care how we do it, but to do it that way [and] see the fans' reaction. Man, we beat Kyle Busch. What an awesome feeling."
Busch was going for the weekend sweep after winning the Truck race on Friday and the Nationwide race Saturday.
"Jeff was on a mission today," Busch said. "When he has a good car and an opportunity to beat you, he's gonna beat you."
But the four-time Sprint Cup champion hadn't beaten anyone in almost two years.
"It's been a long time," Gordon said. "I'll savor this one."
So did the fans at Phoenix. Most of the spectators in the grandstands stood and applauded Gordon for several minutes. Many of them walked down to the catch-fence and cheered, showing respect to one of NASCAR's most successful drivers.
"I looked up and didn't see an empty spot all the way down [the fencing]," Gordon said. "I don't know if I've ever experienced anything like that. It was all joy. I had all kinds of emotions. There were no tears, but the chin was shaking."
New crew chief Alan Gustafson was shaking his fist with excitement: "Welcome back, baby,'' he told Gordon of the radio. "Welcome back."
The first man to greet Gordon in Victory Lane was teammate Mark Martin. He's one of the few people out there who has done this longer than Gordon, who turns 40 in August. Team owner Rick Hendrick walked up and gave Gordon a big hug.
"This was like our first win,'' Hendrick said. "Jeff really drove his butt off today. He had something he wanted to prove."
That doesn't matter to Gordon for now. What matters is winning again and showing he might have what it takes to get that elusive fifth championship, 10 years after the fourth one.
This is Gordon's 19th season in Cup. He was a runner-up eight times during the losing streak, but admits the doubts still crept in at times.
"Every race car driver knows the time will come when he won't go to Victory Lane again," Gordon said. "I was so hoping that time wasn't now. I knew I still had the passion, but when you go for a long time without winning you think, 'Is it me?' Days like today can change that."
So can the major shake-up Hendrick made in the offseason, moving three of his drivers to different teams. It paired Gordon with Gustafson, who was with the No. 5 car driven by Martin.
"I just felt like we needed a spark," Hendrick said about the changes. "Jeff is a great competitor, but he gets down like everybody else. I felt this was a way for him and everyone to get excited again."
That's a bigger accomplishment than it sounds on a day where Phoenix looked more like Talladega.
It made last week's Daytona 500 pairs racing look like a cruise in the park. After only 67 laps, half the drivers in the field had cars that looked worse than the cracking asphalt.
These guys wanted to get back to old-school racing, but they weren't expecting an old-school demolition derby. The "big one" came on Lap 67 and involved 13 cars, causing a 14-minute red flag.
"I'm pretty disgusted with the whole thing," said Clint Bowyer, one of the baker's dirty dozen with mashed machines. "We're all professionals and we should be driving like it.
I hit hard. I thought we were done. Alan [Gustafson] said, 'No, man, I think we're all right.' I went back out and took the lead and knew we had a car that could win.” -- Jeff Gordon
"It's a shame. We're all better drivers than this, but we're all racing like it's our first time. It's kind of embarrassing."
And humbling. Ask Bayne, who wrecked on Lap 50.
Fame is fleeting, folks, even for NASCAR's new heartthrob. He was done for the day after slamming the wall with the back of his car when he tried to squeeze in front of Travis Kvapil.
"I knew these days were coming," Bayne said. "I just didn't know they would come this soon. In this sport you can go from one extreme to the next."
Halfway through the race there were eight cars on the track at least 32 laps down, teams just hoping to milk a mangled machine along to gain a point or two in the standings.
Carl Edwards, who won the pole at Phoenix and finished second last week at Daytona, was one of the drivers just making laps. And Kyle Busch was the man to blame.
"I want to apologize to Carl," Busch said after the race. "I know I made a mistake and I admit it. I got a little loose and caught it, but kind of steered down. I never looked in my mirror. Carl was there and I turned down across him."
Edwards wasn't sure what happened, but as he went back on the track later with his ruined car, Busch was concerned.
"He was mad for sure," Busch said. "Any time I got within five cars lengths of him he checked up early. After about 20 laps he let me go. He was playing, but it didn't cost me anything at the end of the day."
The wreck also didn't cost Gordon, who slid into the wall behind Edwards. But the scraped-up right side of the No. 24 Chevy didn't slow him down a bit.
"I hit hard," Gordon said. "I thought we were done. Alan said, 'No, man, I think we're all right.' I went back out and took the lead and knew we had a car that could win."
And he did, turning back the clock with an aggressive drive at the end that resembled the young kid who often outraced Dale Earnhardt.
Gordon was the "Wonder Boy" then, as Earnhardt dubbed him. Maybe the Wonder Boy is still there, just a little older, a little wiser and a lot more appreciative of what it takes to win.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.