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Gordon ends winless streak at 66 races

AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) - Jeff Gordon's car was solid, he was able to overcame a slew of obstacles and led the most laps around at Phoenix International Raceway. Regardless of whether he won the race or not, he was going to be pleased with his weekend.

To actually grab those checkers, ending the longest winless streak of his career, well, it couldn't have gotten much better than that.

Gordon overcame several potentially troublesome incidents and passed Kyle Bush with eight laps left, ending his winless streak at 66 races with a persevering victory Sunday.

``It hasn't been fun, I can tell you that much,'' Gordon said of the previous two years. ``Today, that's what made this victory so special. We battled, we raced them and it was so cool to experience.''

Gordon joins a running list of drivers to end long winless streaks at PIR. Ryan Newman ended his checkerless drought at 77 races at PIR's spring race last year and Carl Edwards stopped his at 70 races without a win in the fall.

A four-time series champion, Gordon was mired in a drought that seemed inexplicable for one of NASCAR's most successful and popular drivers. Even in ending it, it wasn't easy.

Coming off a disappointing Daytona 500, Gordon struggled in qualifying and started 20th. Early in the race, he was knocked into the wall by Edwards and later had to avoid a massive wreck that led to a 14-minute red flag. He also had to pull behind another car to shake loose a piece of debris from his grill and fight his way back to the front after a slow pit stop late in the race.

Gordon still managed to lead a race-high 138 laps and was able to pull alongside then bump Busch out of the way to win for the first time since April 2009 at Texas. It was his 83rd career victory, tying him with Cale Yarborough for fifth all-time.

``He was on a mission today, that's for sure,'' said Busch, who held on for second to fall just short of winning all three NASCAR races in the same weekend for the second time in his career.

``When Jeff Gordon has a good car and he's got the opportunity to beat you, he's going to beat you, there's no doubt about that. He's my hero and I've always watched him and what he's been able to accomplish over the years, so it's no surprise that he beat us.''

Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman rounded out the top five in a 312-lap race around PIR's mile oval, the last on the current surface.

The quirky old track will undergo a $10 million repaving and reconfiguration project before the fall race, a move that isn't popular with many of the drivers.

The old bump-and-crack-filled surface held up well in its final weekend with a flurry of records.

Clint Bowyer set the qualifying mark in trucks on Friday, then Busch did it in the Nationwide on Saturday. Edwards set a new Sprint Cup qualifying record at the track, hitting 137.279 mph to barely edge Kurt Busch on a day when 15 drivers eclipsed the previous record set by Edwards in the fall.

Conditions were a little different for Sunday's race.

A big storm came through the Valley of the Sun overnight, leaving a dusting of snow on the mountains above the track and washing away all the rubber that had built up on the track the previous two days. That meant a change in setups for all the teams, more grip for the tires and, fitting for the way the weekend went, more speed.

And it seemed the extra speed was hard to handle, leading to numerous early cautions, including one that took out Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne and another that sent Edwards on a lengthy trip to the garage.

The big one hit on Lap 67, when Brian Vickers got loose after bumping Matt Kenseth, triggering a chain-reaction wreck that involved 13 cars and brought out the red flag, not to mention several wreckers - the kind of aggressive racing not normally seen early in the season or early in races.

``They were driving like it was the last lap!'' said Clint Bowyer, who was a part of the wreck. ``Man, if we keep this up, we'll only have four cars to end all these races.''

Gordon traded leads with Tony Stewart, Johnson and, eventually Busch after that. Gordon got Busch by pulling alongside him and bumping him out of the way, then stretched the lead to take the checkers for the first time in a long time.

The fans in the grandstands savored the moment, nearly all of them rising as he crossed the line, and Gordon had a raucous celebration in the pits with his crew, owner and teammate Mark Martin.

``We were the only one to beat Kyle Busch this weekend and he's so tough to beat,'' said Gordon, who also won at PIR in 2007. ``What an awesome, awesome feeling to have a car like that.''

And to win like that, finally.

Copyright 2018 by STATS LLC and Associated Press.
Any commercial use or distribution without the express written
consent of STATS LLC and Associated Press is strictly prohibited.

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