It was one of those NASCAR moments that will be etched in time, part highlight reel action, part hugely symbolic of a changing era. Jeff Gordon, the former enfant terrible of the Sprint Cup Series, the four-time champion, ran down Kyle Busch, this generation's Wonder Boy, as the laps wound to a close in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway in February.
Gordon, now one of the grizzled veterans of the sport, hadn't won a race since Texas in April 2009, 66 long races ago. But with eight laps to go, he got on Busch's rear bumper, causing the No. 18 Toyota to get just a little loose, opening the door enough for Gordon to dive underneath and put the race-winning pass on Busch. Afterward, a jubilant Gordon sounded like he, not Busch, was the young kid with his star on the rise.
“Man, we just beat Kyle Busch!” said Gordon, after Busch had led every lap of the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at PIR and more than half the laps on his way to winning the Camping World Truck Series race there as well. Still, it was hardly the reaction one expected from a four-time champion with 83 race victories to his credit, tied for fifth all-time in the NASCAR record books and just one behind Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison. With any luck at all, Gordon will be clear No. 3 of all-time by year's end, trailing only Richard Petty and David Pearson.
It was an amazing afternoon in the Sonoran Desert for Gordon. The last time he had won at Phoenix was 2007, when he tied the late Dale Earnhardt for sixth place on NASCAR's all-time victory list. For that achievement, he was met with a torrent of thrown beer cans and loud obscenities. This time, the crowd thundered their approval – the driver who once was Public Enemy No. 1 to the Earnhardt Nation, The Blue Oval Boys and just about every other NASCAR fan constituency was now the grizzled vet who'd earned the respect of the race fans.
And it was a good metaphor for how Gordon's career may be about to enjoy a second chapter, thanks to the radically new team pairings at Hendrick Motorsports, the team Gordon has driven for nearly two decades now. Gordon's victory was the first tangible proof that the ballsy crew-chief shuffle engineered by team owner Rick Hendrick had worked. Just days after the 2010 season ended, Gordon was moved out of the Hendrick Motorsports shop he'd shared with Jimmie Johnson since 2002 and into the other Hendrick shop, which housed Mark Martin. Dale Earnhardt Jr. took Gordon's spot in the old 24/48 shop and all the drivers save Johnson got new crew chiefs: Alan Gustafson for Gordon, Steve Letarte for Junior and Lance McGrew for Mark Martin. So far, the move has worked for Gordon, who has the enthusiasm of a young buck again, after a couple of frustrating years.