There was a time in Jeff Gordon's career when he was racing's "Wonder Boy," accumulating impressive wins and Cup titles when he was in his 20s. Victory was expected with the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and Gordon appeared destined to not only win more Cup titles than the seven held by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, but also to challenge other impressive marks.
For instance, David Pearson's 105 victories -- second only to Petty's 200 Cup wins. While Petty's mark will probably never be beaten, Gordon had the look of a man who could crack the 100-win mark and possibly surpass Pearson. That was before Gordon's 66-race winless drought began after he won at Texas in April 2009. During that span, Gordon remained competitive. He finished second eight times but couldn't get back to Victory Lane -- that is until last Sunday's win at Phoenix.
There was a crazed contingent who had the deluded notion that Gordon would never win another race. That he was no longer willing to stick his neck out and put it in places where it might not fight. His victory at Phoenix proved just how absurd a notion that was.
Of course Gordon was going to win again. With eight second-place finishes, of course he was going to return to Victory Lane, although not with the same frequency as before. And now that Gordon has snapped the streak, there's no reason to think he won't get back there a few more times in 2011.
Sunday's win was vintage Gordon, a throwback to a time when he had the best car in the sport with the famed "Rainbow Warriors," led by then crew chief Ray Evernham. Together they won three of Gordon's four Cup titles. When Robbie Loomis took over as crew chief after Evernham left to start his own team, Gordon won his fourth Cup title in 2001. That put him on a "Drive for Five" and it seemed like it would be just a matter of time before he would win his fifth championship followed by a sixth and a record-tying seventh.
Ten years later, however, Gordon remains stuck on four, although the Phoenix triumph was his 83rd Cup win, tying him with Cale Yarborough for the No. 5 spot in all-time career victories.
"I'll be honest, I didn't know if we were ever going to get past 82 wins," Gordon said. "The way things have been going the past couple of years, you lose a little bit of that spark and you wonder what it's going to take to get to Victory Lane. But I can tell you after today that it takes a team like this and a race car like that and we're having a blast man. I cannot wait.
"But boy after today, I am really excited about this season. We are going to enjoy the season and savor this one because of anybody out there, we've won a lot of races over the years but it's been a while and when you go through that kind of a run without winning, it makes you appreciate it that much more."
The victory made team owner Rick Hendrick look like the genius he is for switching crews during the offseason. Gordon's longtime crew chief, Steve Letarte, moved over to Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s car in an effort to bring that team back to competitiveness. Lance McGrew left Earnhardt's No. 88 to work with Mark Martin on the No. 5. Martin's crew chief from last year, Alan Gustafson, moved from that team to Gordon's No. 24. And in just their second Cup race together, Gordon and Gustafson got to Victory Lane.
"We made a lot of changes in the offseason," Hendrick said. "He really drove his butt off today. 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. I think we are going to see a lot of momentum out of that team starting right now."
With the series heading to Las Vegas this weekend, Gordon can duplicate what Carl Edwards did when he ended his 70-race winless streak at Phoenix last November, which was to win the next week at Homestead-Miami.
When it comes to Gordon, don't bet against it.
For the first time since the 1988 Daytona 500, drivers from the same family are 1-2 in the
Kyle overcame an early-race incident that crashed Carl Edwards to finish second in Phoenix. Kurt continued his impressive start to the season with an eighth-place finish for Penske Racing.
"It was a real big mistake on my part and the first person I have to apologize to is Carl Edwards, obviously for what happened there on the backstretch," Kyle said. "It just got out from underneath me and we were getting bounced around like a ping-pong ball there for a while. I got into him and just killed his day. I know he was frustrated and I could tell out there on the race track. I apologize, I don't know how many times. It was unintentional..."
When Tony Kanaan found a ride with team owner Gil de Ferran in December, it was an impressive combination of driving talent and racing savvy that had the look of a big winner in the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2011. In fact, I predicted earlier this month this would be a team capable of winning races and possibly on the outer edge of challenging for the championship.
But that impressive Brazilian tandem will not race together in 2011. A lack of sponsorship has the 2004 IndyCar Series champion Kanaan out of a ride and de Ferran laid off his employees last week.
Team co-owner Jay Penske texted IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard last week, saying something to the effect of, "Don't count us out just yet" for 2011 and the team intends to be back. But a sponsor has to be secured before that can happen.
"This is a very difficult announcement for us to make," de Ferran said. "When Tony and I put the deal together we both knew that it had to make financial sense and we set ourselves certain targets. We believed that together we were a strong proposition both on and off the track and really felt we could have become a major force in the championship in 2011 and beyond. Despite our collective best efforts we have not been able to secure the sponsorship funds to go any further."
Kanaan has suffered his second setback in just over four months. He was released from his contract with Andretti Autosport at the end of October after longtime sponsor 7-Eleven announced it would not be back. Kanaan had been with team owner Michael Andretti since the two left CART to join IndyCar in 2003. Kanaan won the 2004 IndyCar championship.
After signing with de Ferran Dragon Racing, it looked like he was back on the lead lap in the series. Now, he may not make it to the starting line.
"Gil and I have decided to go our separate ways," Kanaan said. "I wish both him and his team all the best but unfortunately we couldn't find the required funding for the season. For sure it wasn't through lack of effort. For me personally I am determined to race in the IZOD IndyCar Series this year and I am going to continue to do everything in my power to secure the best opportunity for 2011."
Kanaan could be considered for a third car at KV Racing Technology, where he would team up with E.J. Viso and Takuma Sato on the team owned by former CART driver Jimmy Vasser and former Champ Car Series owner Kevin Kalkhoven.