Jeff Gordon celebrates his win in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday in Avondale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
AVONDALE, Ariz. — Just before peeling off what he called a lame burnout near the finish line, Jeff Gordon screamed into his radio, the emotion pouring out with his voice.
“We just beat Kyle Busch!” he yelled.
Gordon did much more than that. He was headed back to Victory Circle, the longest winless streak of his career finally in the rearview mirror.
Overcoming a slew of potentially disastrous incidents, Gordon passed Kyle Busch with eight laps left and stretched his lead from there, ending his winless streak at 66 races Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway.
“It feels so amazing. I can’t tell you how amazing this feels,” Gordon said. “It’s been a long time, I know, and I’m going to savor this one so much.”
PIR has been the place to end long winless streaks lately. Ryan Newman halted a 77-race checkerless streak at PIR in the spring and Carl Edwards stopped his run at 70 races without a win in the fall.
Gordon, a four-time Sprint Cup champion, was mired in a drought that seemed inexplicable for one of NASCAR’s most successful and popular drivers. Even in ending it, it wasn’t easy.
Coming off a disappointing Daytona 500, Gordon struggled in qualifying and started 20th. Early in the race, he was knocked into the wall by Edwards and later had to avoid a massive wreck that led to a 14-minute red flag. He also had to pull behind another car to shake loose a piece of debris from his grill and fight his way back to the front after a slow pit stop late in the race.
Gordon still managed to lead a race-high 138 laps and was able to pull alongside then bump Busch out of the way to win for the first time since April 2009 at Texas. It was his 83rd career victory, tying him with Cale Yarborough for fifth all-time.
“He was on a mission today, that’s for sure,” said Busch, who held on for second to fall just short of winning all three NASCAR races in the same weekend for the second time in his career.
“When Jeff Gordon has a good car and he’s got the opportunity to beat you, he’s going to beat you, 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, so it’s no surprise that he beat us.”
Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman rounded out the top five in a 312-lap race around PIR’s mile oval, the last on the current surface.
The quirky old track will undergo a $10 million repaving and reconfiguration project before the fall race, a move that isn’t popular with many of the drivers.
The old bump-and-crack-filled surface held up well in its final weekend with a flurry of records.
Clint Bowyer set the qualifying mark in trucks on Friday, then Busch did it in Nationwide on Saturday. Edwards set a new Sprint Cup qualifying record at the track, hitting 137.279 mph to barely edge Kurt Busch on a day when 15 drivers eclipsed the previous record set by Edwards in the fall.
Conditions were a little different for Sunday’s race.
A big storm came through the Valley of the Sun overnight, leaving a dusting of snow on the mountains above the track and washing away all the rubber that had built up on the track the previous two days. That meant a change in setups for all the teams, more grip for the tires and, fitting for the way the weekend went, more speed.
And it seemed the extra speed was hard to handle, leading to numerous early cautions, including one that took out Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne.
Edwards never got much of a chance to make it two straight wins at PIR. After leading several laps early, his No. 99 car got sent to the infield grass around Lap 60 when Kyle Busch’s car got loose and hit him on the right side.
Edwards tried to keep going, but smoke started billowing out of the left side of his car and he was unable to turn, slamming into Gordon and sending both of them into the wall. He returned to the track later and finished 28th.
“I watched the replay and I think Kyle was just having a little trouble with his car,” Edwards said. “He was frustrated about it and didn’t give us the room we needed. It just worked out in the absolute worst case for us.”
A few laps later, the big wreck hit.
It started with Matt Kenseth bumping Brian Vickers coming out of Turn 2. Vickers tried to correct his slide, got loose and started a chain-reaction wreck that involved 13 cars and brought out the red flag, not to mention several wreckers — the kind of aggressive racing not normally seen early in the season or early in races.
“They were driving like it was the last lap!” said Clint Bowyer, who was a part of the wreck. “Man, if we keep this up, we’ll only have four cars to end all these races.”
Once track officials finally cleared the track, the drivers were treated to a series of long runs.
Tony Stewart, Gordon and Johnson traded leads after that, with Gordon getting the longest stints. He seemed to be in control down the stretch, but lost the lead on a slow pit stop during the final caution.
Gordon quickly worked his way back through the field and caught up to Kyle Busch, who had passed Stewart for the lead. He stalked Busch for a few laps, then made his move and stretched the lead to take the checkers for the first time in a long time.
The fans in the grandstands savored the moment, nearly all of them rising as he crossed the line, and Gordon had a raucous celebration in the pits with his crew, owner and teammate Mark Martin.
“We were the only one to beat Kyle Busch this weekend, and he’s so tough to beat,” Gordon said. “What an awesome, awesome feeling to have a car like that.”
And to win like that, finally.