Bill Fleischman: Gordon win at Phoenix is a boost for NASCAR

A WEEK AFTER Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 in only his second Sprint Cup Series start, Jeff Gordon ended his 66-race winless drought, longest of his career.

Fans who still resent Gordon (and you know who you are) won't like this, but his winning is good for NASCAR. Gordon is one of the best race-car drivers ever, plus he's a classy guy who is good with fans and media.

His 83rd career victory Sunday at Phoenix ties him with Cale Yarborough for fourth on the all-time Cup series chart. Gordon's next win will tie him with Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison (84 wins apiece). Second all-time a bit further up the ladder: David Pearson at 105. Richard Petty is the all-time leader with 200 wins.

"How cool is that, to tie Yarborough?" said an ebullient Gordon, who won for the first time since April 6, 2009. "That is the ultimate. First guy I ever drove a Cup car for was Cale Yarborough. A lot of people don't realize that. Of course, I spun that car that day, too.

"I can't tell you how amazing this feels. It's been a long time, I know. I'm going to savor this one so much, but I've got to say thanks to the fans. I've been tweeting lately for the first time, and all of the stuff that people have been saying, the motivation has been unbelievably inspiring.

"And then, to see that crowd stick around to see my really lame burnout, because I stink at them, but they love that show. We hope we can give them some more shows like that this year."

Gordon passed Kyle Busch for the lead with eight laps remaining. Already that weekend, Busch had won the Camping World truck race and the Nationwide race at Phoenix. Busch led all 200 laps in the Nationwide event.

No one was happier for Gordon than Rick Hendrick, his longtime team owner.

"Someone said it was like our first win, Jeff was so happy," Hendrick said. "He really drove his butt off. To come out and run Kyle down, and you know, have Jimmie [Johnson] and Tony [Stewart] and all of those guys up there, I think he had something he wanted to prove. And it was a great win for the organization.

Hendrick is convinced that Gordon, 39, a four-time Cup champion whose last title came in 2001, still has a championship or two in him.

"He came close last year and had terrible luck at the end," Hendrick said. "When you're a champion like Jeff Gordon, you know that you can still do it. When people overlook you, I think it's something that he wanted to do and wanted to prove.

"One of the neatest things was to see the fans' reaction to him today. [It] was unbelievable. He mentioned that over and over in victory lane.

"The guy has all the talent in the world and, [as] the calendar rolls on, everybody thinks he's got to be a young guy to [win a title]. Mark Martin proved that's not the case in '09."

Martin finished second in 2009.

Gordon is tied with Martin, another teammate, for fifth in standings, 15 points behind Busch, the leader. Wouldn't it be great for the sport if Gordon is a major challenger to Johnson, the five-time reigning champion, his teammate and protégé?

While Gordon and Johnson are still friendly, Johnson's success the past 5 years has annoyed Gordon. He badly wants another title. With new crew chief Alan Gustafson calling the shots, maybe this is the year Gordon makes a serious run.

ALL IN THE FAMILY

With Kyle Busch leading older brother Kurt by three points in the standings after two races, it's the first time family members are one-two in points since 1988. Following the Daytona 500, Bobby Allison and son Davey occupied the first two places.

Kyle has one win in seven starts at Las Vegas, site of Sunday's race. Kurt's record at their hometown track isn't much to brag about on the Strip - only won top-five finish in 10 starts.

FOCUS, CARL, FOCUS

A complimentary tip of the ol' restrictor plate to Fox reporter Matt Yocum for seizing control of his interview with Carl Edwards after the multicar wreck in the Phoenix race.

Asked by Yocum to view the replay and explain what happened in the melee, Edwards did what many sponsor-conscious drivers do: He started to praise his team and sponsor before addressing the question. Yocum politely cut him off and steered Edwards toward the replay. *

THIS WEEK'S RACE

Kobalt Tools 400

Las Vegas Motor Speedway

When: Sunday, 3 p.m.

TV/Radio: Fox/WNPV (1440-AM)

Race course: 1.5-mile oval

Race distance: 267 laps/400 miles

Race forecast: partly sunny, mid-70s

Last year's race winner: Jimmie Johnson

Last year's pole winner: Kurt Busch, 188.719 mph (track record)

Track facts: Jimmie Johnson led only 18 laps, including the last 17, in winning last year's race. Jeff Gordon paced the most laps, 219. Gordon finished third; Kevin Harvick was runner-up . . . Gordon and Mark Martin have six top-five finishes each at Las Vegas.

POINTS LEADERS

Kyle Busch 80

Kurt Busch 77

Tony Stewart 69

A.J. Allmendinger 69

Jeff Gordon 65

Mark Martin 65

Bobby Labonte 64

Ryan Newman 64

Juan Montoya 64

David Gilliland 63

Paul Menard 63

Carl Edwards 59

Jimmie Johnson 59

Denny Hamlin 58

Kasey Kahne 57

Martin Truex Jr. 56

Dale Earnhardt Jr. 55

Bill Elliott 53

Regan Smith 48

Brad Keselowski 47

UP NEXT: Jeff Byrd 500, presented by Food City, March 20, Bristol Motor Speedway, Bristol, Tenn., 1 p.m.; TV: Fox; last year's winner: Jimmie Johnson.