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With Texas victory, Jeff Gordon has Sprint Cup momentum


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- One of the most ridiculous predictions of recent Sprint Cup memory circulated around the midway point of last season: Jeff Gordon will never win another race.

It was like saying the University of North Carolina will never make another Final Four, or the New York Yankees will never make it back to the World Series.

The premise never should have been: Will Gordon win another race? It should have been: When?

Given Gordon's fast start to 2009, it appeared likely that the longest winless streak of his career would soon end. How striking that it was snapped at a track where he had never won -- Texas Motor Speedway.

Gordon scored the 82nd victory of his incredible career in Sunday's wind-blown Samsung 500, ending two winless streaks in one race. He also increased his lead in the Sprint Cup standings, and let everyone know he's not resting on his laurels. The four-time Cup champion is a serious title contender in 2009.

But even Gordon admitted that his first win in 48 attempts brought an unfamiliar feeling.

"It feels like the very first time I've ever won," Gordon told reporters after the race. "It's been a long streak. It's been a lot of ups and downs and tough times, not only here at Texas but just over the past [48] races. And I knew we were going to get one eventually. I feel like we had some missed opportunities last season, even as we didn't have a great year. But there were still times we could have won. And so that just keeps you driving and driving hard and pushing forward."

That's not to say that Gordon's team had become stale, but it certainly needed to regain its focus. It's obvious the talent was there with Gordon as the driver, Steve Letarte as the crew chief and Hendrick Motorsports with the equipment. It just took time for it to all come together.

"I think this is probably the best place we possibly could have won, because it's eluded us for so long, and to break the streak not only here at Texas, but over the last 40-whatever races, it's pretty cool," Gordon said.

Letarte called the win a huge momentum builder that can propel the team through the remainder of the 26-race regular season, which sets the stage for the 10-race Chase for the Championship.

"Every season you're looking for that first win," Gordon said. "And you get that one off your back and you can breathe and relax. ... If we can win at Texas, I feel like we can win anywhere. And this racetrack is in the Chase. So this is a big day."

Since he first showed up as an IndyCar driver in the 1970s, Dale Coyne has been able to keep an eye on the competition because it was all starting in front of him. That role as a backmarker continued when Coyne became a team owner in CART, Champ Car and, beginning in 2008, the IndyCar Series.

There were a few exceptions, such as Zolder in 2007, when Bruno Junqueira drove Coyne's car to a second-place finish, but for the most part winning was never a serious consideration.

The same could be said for Vision Racing, a team owned by Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner and Indy Racing League founder and CEO Tony George. When the team began in 2004, some suggested that its logo should be a Seeing Eye dog. But over the years, the team has steadily improved, challenging for the high finishing positions with such drivers as Tomas Scheckter, who was third at Milwaukee in 2007.

In Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, both Dale Coyne Racing and Vision Racing were in serious competition for the victory.

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Justin Wilson (of Dale Coyne) led for a race-best total of 52 laps, and was in front of the field until the 87th lap when he was passed by eventual winner Ryan Briscoe in the first turn on a restart. Ryan Hunter-Reay of Vision Racing also passed Wilson to take over second place and began to challenge Briscoe for the lead before finishing second.

But by looking at the faces of their team owners afterward, you'd have thought they both won.

"Anybody that is competitive would enjoy this as the most interesting and best part of my job," George said. "The other aspects are business, but this is competition."

George was smiling as he walked through a crowded paddock packed with spectators and team members.

"This is fun," George said. "It's a lot more fun when days end like this than when they don't go so well. I really expect to get to Victory Lane this year. I didn't just say that for the press release, I really believe it. I think this team has come a long way. It started with Larry Curry and Matt Curry and all those guys that were there in the beginning. Some are still with us and some aren't. They all contributed to this day."

The driver who is helping George and Vision Racing make that climb is Hunter-Reay, who won an IndyCar race at Watkins Glen last July when he drove for Rahal Letterman Racing.

Meanwhile, Dale Coyne is used to seeing his cars off the pace, but for most of Sunday's race his car was leading the field. But as yellow flags waved late in the race, it presented the opportunity for Briscoe and Team Penske to get the jump on restart.

"We were strong and we really could have had it, but that one restart was not a good one and it cost us the deal," Coyne said. "My heart sank big-time when that happened. We could see it coming because he bogged up the field and they got a run on him so we realized we were in trouble."

Coyne had to laugh when he realized he was upset at making the podium. But he also understands what this finish means to his team.

"Eventually, the Chicago Cubs will win the World Series," Coyne said, referring to baseball's historic losers and their perpetual quest for a championship.

It didn't take long for Danica Patrick to find controversy this season -- it came in turn 12 of the 33rd lap Sunday. The hard crash came after Raphael Matos tried to pass on a particularly treacherous stretch of track. Patrick had words with Matos before the IndyCar Series safety team picked them up and returned them to pit lane.

"I tried to pass him down the backstraight and he came down in the kink and that slowed me up," Patrick said. "Coming out of the corner and going into the fast chicane, there is no room for two cars there. It's not an ideal spot to make something happen. Things happen really quickly, but I was looking in my mirrors. He was not up beside me and he did not make it."

When told that Matos claimed she turned into him, Patrick responded, "I turned into the corner because it was my racing line. What was I going to do?"

This was Matos' first IndyCar race, but Patrick didn't exactly call it a rookie mistake.

"These races are a lot longer than what he may be used to," she said. "It's not a passing zone and he wasn't all the way alongside of me and it didn't end well. Some drivers are more aggressive than others. I'm not the type of driver that crashes out and does silly things. I collect points and get as many positions as I can. I don't feel like I was the one that made it not happen today."

Matos is a talented driver from Brazil who drives for Luczo-Dragon Racing. He won the 2008 Firestone Indy Lights championship.

"It's very unfortunate," he said of the crash. "She made a mistake in Turn 10 passing a lapped car. I had a really good run going and was already on the inside of her. I'm not sure she didn't see me but turned into me. I was flat out when I hit her. The team worked really hard and I feel bad for the sponsors. We just have to regroup for Long Beach [in two weeks]."

Matos finished 20th, and Patrick finished 19th.

If Helio Castroneves wins his federal tax evasion trial, which could conclude this week in Miami, the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner will not have to worry about job security. Team owner Roger Penske confirmed that if Castroneves is acquitted, he will return to the No. 3 Team Penske IndyCar immediately.

Penske has stood by the popular Brazilian driver since he was indicted last October. But after the trial began last month, he turned the ride over to Australia's Will Power.

"If he gets off, he'll be driving the car at Long Beach," Penske said, referring to the Toyota Grand Prix in two weeks. "We will consider running three cars whether it be for the full season or through the Indianapolis 500. There is some possible opportunity out there. But it's so difficult. Will has done a good job, but we'll have to look at budgets and everything else."

Based on the news he has received from the driver, Penske is encouraged that Castroneves could get a favorable verdict.

"Helio doesn't have a bad bone in his body, and it's unfortunate that all of this came about in the first place," Penske said. "We're positive there really isn't anything there. Unfortunately, we have the government on one side and the defense on the other."

An appearance by Richard Petty at the Indianapolis 500 is not unusual, as NASCAR's King has visited the race on numerous occasions dating to the 1970s. But this year, Petty will have a new role as an official entrant.

Richard Petty Motorsports will field an Indy 500 entry with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in the 93rd Indianapolis 500. John Andretti will be the driver.

Dreyer & Reinbold is a full-time IndyCar operation that fields cars for Mike Conway. Darren Manning also competed for the team in last weekend's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, finishing eighth.

Andretti's best start at Indy was seventh and best finish was fifth, both coming in 1991 when he was driving the Pennzoil Z-7 for team owner Jim Hall.

In 1994, Andretti became the first driver to compete in both the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race on the same day. He finished 10th at Indianapolis, but crashed and finished 36th in the 600.

Andretti started 21st and finished 16th in last year's race for Roth Racing.

Before Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Ryan Briscoe had always raced well on the tricky 1.81-mile, 14-turn street course. It's just that he never finished well. As a rookie in 2005, he was having an impressive race for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing before he got knocked aside by Tony Kanaan late in the race and ended up in a tire barrier.

Last year with Team Penske, Briscoe completed just 11 laps and finished 23rd.

But on Sunday, the driver from Australia found the secret to success by edging Ryan Hunter-Reay for the third IndyCar victory of his career; it was also the 30th series win for Team Penske. It was the third time a Team Penske driver has won this race -- Helio Castroneves won in 2006 and 2007.

"Certainly coming into it this year, we knew we could run well," Briscoe said. "I've led laps each other time I've raced here, but we've just never gotten the job done. The main goal today was to get the car to the finish line and I wasn't going to do anything desperate with Justin at the end."

This was the first IndyCar Series race featuring the use of two different tire compounds, with a black-sidewalled primary tire that featured durability and a red-sidewalled alternate tire that used a softer compound for additional speed but wore out quicker. Teams had to run at least two laps in the race with each type of tire.

That added a new element of strategy to the race. Team Penske played it perfectly by starting Briscoe on the red alternate tires until his first pit stop, when it short-pitted to get him in front of the field with the lead. He finished the 100-lap contest on two sets of the black primary tires, which was crucial at the end as he held off Hunter-Reay, who was using the red alternates.

"The way this works is that I don't need anybody to tell me when I've done something wrong, they don't need anybody to tell them when they do something wrong. Those guys want to win this race just as bad as I do. We're all in this together. They don't yell at me when I hit the wall, so it's not my position to be mad at them. We just have to do whatever we can to fix it. Hopefully, that's good enough. I think we'll get better. They can do it, they had one pit stop, we passed a ton of people and put us in a position to get the lead. I know they can do it, we just got to figure out how to do it every time." -- Carl Edwards, after his last pit stop of the race dropped him from the lead to 10th place, spoiling his chance at a victory in Texas.

"I'm going to raise a little hell and I'm going to go to Whiskey River and I'm going to go on vacation during Easter and take it easy, man."-- Dale Earnhardt, Jr., on his Easter weekend plans.

"Wherever I can be the champ. It don't matter to me if it was in Nantucket -- I don't care."-- Earnhardt, Jr., when asked his thoughts on having the NASCAR banquet moved from New York to Las Vegas.

"I didn't think it was a very smart deal."-- Tony Stewart's response to an April Fool's joke on Car & Driver's Web site that said President Obama was having General Motors discontinue its NASCAR involvement because it was accepting federal money to stay in business. In fact, that is not true -- at least not yet.

"To be honest, it doesn't get any sweeter. You grow up as a Rahal and you're meant to want to beat the Andrettis. That's just how it works and vice versa. If you think of the two big names in open-wheel racing, those are them. Beating Marco is a great thing. It's always nice." -- Graham Rahal, after breaking Marco Andretti's IndyCar record as the youngest pole winner. Rahal was 20 years, 90 days on Saturday. Last year, he broke Andretti's record as youngest IndyCar race winner when he was 19 years, 93 days.

Easter weekend means another break in the schedule for NASCAR Sprint Cup and IndyCar. That means another chance to recharge before racing kicks into high gear in two weeks with the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach for IndyCar and the Saturday Night Sprint Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway.