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Win shows Jeff Gordon is still relevant

Prior to last week’s Daytona 500, four-time NASCAR champ Jeff Gordon was reduced to defending his “relevance.”

That kind of thing can happen when you are in the midst of the longest losing streak of your career while a teammate – Jimmie Johnson – has won an unprecedented five straight championships. The questions have to nag at you, cause you to even begin to doubt yourself. As someone who knew Gordon since before he made his first Cup start, I’ve pulled for the veteran of 19 seasons lately to return to victory lane and championship form. But the drought caused me, heck, it caused almost everyone in the garage to question if he would win again.

And while Gordon will never admit it, I’m certain he’s told himself over and over since that last win – a vindication victory in the Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas Motor Speedway in April 2009 – that he could win. He knew he could win.

But quietly, painfully, Gordon had to wonder if he would, really, ever win again.

Well, he won today in Phoenix, hustling his car around the always wide-open Kyle Busch for a satisfying win to snap his 66-race drought.

Busch, who won both the Truck and Nationwide prelim races at Phoenix this weekend, is the hardest charger in the field. When he’s hooked up – and he usually is at Phoenix – beating him isn’t easy. A restart with 21 laps to go Sunday pitted a group of the best at the front of the field – the Busch brothers (Kyle and Kurt), Gordon, Johnson and Tony Stewart. While Stewart came alive late in the race he was handicapped by a gamble to go with two right-side tires on his last pit stop while the others went with four. Stewart was on the point when the green flag dropped for the restart but soon his car was skating up the turns and the others picked their way past on benefit of four freshly-shod tires.

Kyle Busch jumped out to a lead and pulled away with Gordon second. Busch pulled out to a surprisingly large lead.

And then Gordon began to reel him in. Slowly. Then quickly. But as Gordon said, it’s easy to catch a car and a whole other thing to pass it. Particularly the irascible Busch.

Then, impressively, Gordon turned left coming off the fourth turn and motored by Busch’s car with seven laps to go. It almost looked easy until the cars got into turn one. Gordon’s car pushed up in the turn with Busch on the outside between him and the wall. Sheet metal banged and while both cars straightened out and kept digging, Gordon – and everybody else – wondered what would happen if Busch could catch him.

“I knew I had to get away from him as fast as I could,” Gordon admitted after the race.

Whether motivated by questions of relevance or not wanting to tempt Busch, Gordon kept pulling away for a fairly easy margin of victory.

Still there was the matter of the cool-down lap. What would Busch do after Gordon’s first-turn fender-banging? Fireworks? Temper? Retaliation?

Seconds after the checkered flag dropped, Busch zoomed up beside the Gordon’s slowing car and shoved his arm out the window at Gordon, offering a congratulatory thumbs-up of respect.

Busch knows that if he’s going to win his first championship, he’s going to have to contend with the former “Wonder Boy.” And there’s no need to poke the now-grizzled veteran and further wake him.

Even the young bully on the racetrack recognizes the relevance.