A timely pit stop and a late pass of Tony Stewart helped Jeff Gordon claim his first NASCAR Nextel Cup victory in 17 tries at Phoenix International Raceway Saturday night.
More importantly, from Gordon’s perspective, was that he matched the late Dale Earnhardt’s career win total of 76, good for sixth all time, well behind the leader, legend Richard Petty (200).
“It’s so special, this is a special night,” Gordon said of his victory, which came in Nextel Cup’s third race using the Car of Tomorrow.
To honor his former mentor and rival, Gordon waved a No. 3 flag bearing Earnhardt’s black, red and white colors out of his driver’s window during his victory lap around the mile oval. The PIR crowd of 105,000 cheered Gordon’s gesture.
“Holding that 3 flag, you know, it’s certainly by no means to say I’m as good or we’re as good (as Earnhardt) or even close,” Gordon said. “To honor him in that way means a lot to me. I learned so much from him and to even come close to anything he’s ever done in this sport is amazing to me.”
Waiting in Victory Lane to congratulate Gordon was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who also approved of the flag-waving lap. “He told me that was a class act,” Gordon said.
Gordon, Thursday’s polewinner for the Subway Fresh Fit 500, needed a timely pit stop with 29 laps remaining to get him to the front and the eventual win.
On lap 283, Gordon, running second at the time behind Stewart, pulled his No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet into pit lane for a green-flag stop, which should have dropped him a lap behind the lead cars. But as he approached his pit box, a crash that knocked Dave Blaney and Kenny Wallace from the race brought out the caution flag.
The leaders slowed and Gordon got his four tires and gas and returned to the track in time to stay on the lead lap.
When Stewart and the rest of the field on the lead lap pitted a lap later under the caution, Gordon assumed the race lead.
“We just got really lucky,” Gordon said.
Gordon also needed a fast car and skillful driving to fend off Stewart.
With 13 laps left, Gordon, who was slowed trying to pass Martin Truex Jr., got in a three-wide battle on the backstretch with Truex and Stewart, who slipped between the two — bumping Gordon as he passed — to take the lead.
A lap later Gordon swept by Stewart on the outside to retake the lead for good in Turn 4.
“I drove my guts out,” Gordon said. “I never had to drive so hard for a win. I love racing Tony Stewart and Jimmie (Johnson) and all those guys that were racing there at the end.”
Stewart settled for second best. He left the track shortly after the race without meeting with the media.
“We’re real happy about the way the car ran tonight,” said Stewart, who led a race-high 132 laps out of 312, in a statement released by Team Chevy.
Denny Hamlin, who had the fastest car early in the race and led 72 laps, finished third. While the race leader, he earned a penalty for speeding on pit row on lap 101 and was sent to the end of the lead lap, which dropped him to 31st. He blazed through the field, but ran out of laps to make a run at Gordon and Stewart.
Gordon’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson finished fourth, Matt Kenseth was fifth. Rounding out the top 10 were Jeff Green, Kyle Busch, Bobby Labonte, Johnny Sauter and Kevin Harvick. Gordon, who had four secondplace finishes in the first seven races, earned his initial 2007 win to increase his lead in the driver points standings to 74 over Jeff Burton (1,326-1,252).