Monday April 6th, 2009

Five things we learned on a windy Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway:

1. The streak is over for Jeff Gordon.

The last time Gordon reached Victory Lane, the stock market was above 14,000 points. In fact, it had been so long since Gordon took a checkered flag -- a span of 47 races -- that he didn't exactly know how to celebrate after he crossed the finish line first. "Things have changed since I won a race," Gordon said. "A season goes by and guys recreate how they celebrate a victory."

Gordon had watched other drivers grab the checkered flag from the flag stand last year, and so for the first time in his Cup career he did the same on Sunday. It was a moment of great relief for Gordon. He's clearly been the top driver in the series this season, but each week he's been asked about his winless drought, which was the longest of his career.

"The team is on," Gordon said. "Our communication's good. I feel great because I've been working out a lot more, and that's positive mental and physical energy that's happening. And it's working. That's all I know."

The victory was a complete team effort. The key moment came with 29 laps to go when Gordon came to pit road under yellow for the afternoon's final round of pit stops. His pit crew executed a flawless stop, and Gordon, who entered the pits in third place, left with the lead. With nothing but clean air in front of him, he was able to hold off Jimmie Johnson to win for the first time since Oct. 21, 2007.

Gordon holds a 162-point lead in the standings over Johnson, and he's already a virtual lock to make the Chase. This team is hitting on all cylinders, and it would be surprising if Gordon and Co. didn't win several more times over the next two months.

2. Carl Edwards had the fastest car in the field.

Edwards, Sports Illustrated's preseason pick to win the championship, has encountered problems on pit road all season. At Martinsville last week, he lost more than a dozen spots on pit road. On Sunday, he was in the lead when he came to the pits for the final stop. But then his front-tire changer had trouble with both tires and the prolonged stop caused him to fall to 11th place when the race restarted. Stuck back in traffic, Edwards finished 10th.

Still, this was an encouraging run for the No. 99 team. To me, it still looks like the team to beat on the 1.5-mile tracks like Texas, and this bodes well for Edwards' title hopes. After all, six of the 10 Chase races take place at these venues. And if he can get his pit road issues resolved -- Edwards' team has had to switch some roles around in the pits because of injuries -- this team should be formidable once the Chase begins.

3. Kurt Busch had another strong points day.

In my book, Busch has been the biggest surprise in the Cup series this season. A year after finishing 18th in the standings, he's currently third in the points. He consistently ran in the top 10 and came in eighth on Sunday -- another strong performance for a team that floundered for most of 2008.

To read more about Busch and the keys to his resurgence, check out my story in the magazine this week.

4. The struggles of Dale Earnhardt Jr. continued.

No driver has been as mistake-prone as Little E this season. He provided his critics with more ammunition on Sunday. With a little more than 100 laps to go, Junior had to make an unexpected pit stop under yellow because his crew had left a lug nut off one of his tires. But even though pit road was virtually empty, Junior didn't see his No. 88 signboard in front of his pit, and drove right by his stall. He then had to come back on the next lap.

True, Junior did briefly seize the lead in the race after he chose to take only two tires during a later pit stop, but the gaffe underscored Earnhardt's biggest problem this year: his lapses of concentration. He ended up hitting the wall late in the race and finished a disappointing 20th. After seven races, he's 16th in the standings.

But there is hope on the horizon for the No. 88 team. The next two tracks on the schedule -- Phoenix and Talladega -- are among Earnhardt's best. If he can avoid the mental errors, he should be able to reel off back-to-back top-10 runs.

5. Tony Stewart is lurking.

Based on how he's been performing this season, it shouldn't be long before Stewart records his first victory for Stewart Haas Racing. He led 16 laps in Texas, never fell out of the top five over the final 450 miles of the race, and finished fourth. This was the fourth top-10 finish of 2009 for Stewart, who is fifth in the standings.

It's hard to overemphasize how impressive Stewart has been this year. Before the green flag dropped at Daytona, most in the garage theorized that Stewart would be lucky to crack the top 20 in points because he was racing for what is essentially a start-up team. But his crew chief, Darien Grubb, has proved to be one of the shrewdest in the sport. Grubb had never been a full-time crew chief before -- he briefly led Johnson's team in 2006 when Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, was serving a suspension for a rules violation and guided Johnson to a win at the Daytona 500 -- but he and Stewart have clicked faster than anyone expected. It also hasn't hurt that Grubb and Stewart are leasing their equipment from Hendrick Motorsports and are basically serving as a satellite team for the Hendrick empire.

When will Stewart and Grubb notch their first victory? Well, keep an eye on them at Talladega on April 26. Stewart led 15 laps in his eighth-place run earlier this season at Daytona -- the other restrictor-plate race on the schedule -- and he won at 'Dega last fall.

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