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Hammer down and homeward bound

- rgreenjr@charlotteobserver.com
Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011

AVONDALE, Az. – There was a time when Jeff Gordon seemed to live in Victory Lane.

He found his way back there Sunday at the Subway 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

Gordon didn’t just end a 66-race winless streak that stretched nearly two years, he sent a reminder across a sport suddenly enamored by a Daytona 500 champion nearly half his age that he still knows how to get it done.

Not that anyone should have forgotten.

It was the 83rd Sprint Cup victory of Gordon’s career, tying him for fifth all time with Cale Yarborough, just one win behind Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison.

In just the second race with crew chief Alan Gustafson, Gordon blew by Kyle Busch with eight laps remaining, spoiling Busch’s attempt to sweep all three races during the chilly, windswept weekend.

“Man, we just beat Kyle Busch,” Gordon said upon crawling out of his burgundy Chevrolet.

It sounded funny coming from a driver about whom others used to say the same thing.

“It was like our first win, Jeff was so happy,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “We made a lot of changes in the off-season. He drove his butt off.

“To run Kyle down, I think he had something he wanted to prove.”

Gordon’s victory was, in part, set up by his ability to avoid – or at least survive – two major incidents early in the race that had the action on the one-mile track resembling something that might happen on a restrictor-plate superspeedway.

It started when Busch bumped Carl Edwards and sent the pole-winner sliding, doing enough damage to Edwards’ car to ruin his chance of winning, ultimately causing him to finish 60 laps behind.

Edwards hit Gordon and pushed his car into the wall, but the damage was minimal for the No. 24 Chevrolet.

“I thought we were done,” Gordon said.

He wasn’t.

Less than 10 laps later, Brian Vickers went sliding as he came out of the second turn, causing a 13-car accident that led to a 14-minute red flag while safety crews cleared the littered track.

That meant 23 cars were involved in accidents in the first 67 laps, including seven of the top-10 finishers at Daytona.

“Total chaos,” Gustafson said.

There were other issues for Gordon. Twice he picked up debris on his car’s grille and had to duck in behind others to clean it off.

As the second half of the race unfolded with less drama, Gordon stayed at or near the front. He felt from the start of the race that his car had what he needed and spent the afternoon proving it.

After a late caution, Gordon found himself fourth on a restart behind Tony Stewart, Busch and Jimmie Johnson. Busch pulled away quickly but Gordon methodically chased him down.

With eight laps remaining, Gordon pulled alongside Busch coming out of the fourth turn. Expecting side-by-side racing to the checkered flag, Gordon instead rode underneath Busch entering the first turn, nudged him slightly and pulled away.

“He drifted up into me a little bit and knocked me out of the way. But it doesn’t matter. It has nothing to do with how he won,” Busch said.

In fact, it had plenty to do with how Gordon won.

“I’ve not been in position to put pressure on the leader and force him to make mistakes in a long time,” Gordon said. “To be in that position today was such a cool feeling.

“We banged a little (in Turn 1) and my spotter said, ‘clear.’ I just drove off.”

After the race, Gordon was scheduled to fly to Los Angeles to attend a post-Oscar party with some friends. His only regret was that his new trophy was too big to take into the party.

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