Triumphant Gordon pays tribute to longtime foe

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Jeff Gordon misses the bumps that the late Dale Earnhardt used to give him on the track for seemingly no reason at all. He misses the way Earnhardt would sneak up behind people in the garage and pinch them on the neck.

He misses the talks he had with the seven-time champion about boats, especially since he no longer gets seasick and owns one.

"I'd like to have him around now to tell him how much it cost me," Gordon said with a laugh late Saturday night.

No, the rivalry Gordon had with Earnhardt, the one that still makes fans boo him unmercifully during pre-race introductions because they believe he stole their favorite driver's thunder when he burst onto the Nextel Cup scene 16 years ago, didn't affect the respect the two had for each other.

So after Gordon won his 75th race last season at Chicago and moved within one of tying Earnhardt for sixth place on NASCAR's all-time win list, his public relations staff began looking for a way to show that respect.

They decided that after the next win Gordon would be given a large black flag with the white No. 3 that Earnhardt made famous and hold it out of the car on the victory lap.

That moment came Saturday night at Phoenix International Raceway.

As soon as Gordon crossed the finish line almost a second ahead of Tony Stewart, crew chief Steve Letarte shouted over the in-car radio, "Jeff Gordon, I've got a special flag for you."

Amazingly, there were only a scattering of boos from the stands.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. appreciated the move as well, stopping by Victory Lane to thank Gordon for the tribute to his dad.

"He told me that was a class act," Gordon said. "That's what you're hoping for. … I wasn't sure how people were going to take that. Some people might think we were saying I was as good as him.

"When they approached me about it at first I said no. I didn't want people to take it the wrong way. I respected him so much I didn't want to disrespect him."

As happy as Gordon was to tie a legend, he was happier to get his first win at Phoenix. That leaves Texas Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway as the only two tracks on the circuit where he hasn't visited Victory Lane in a Nextel Cup car.

He'll be even happier if by the finale at Homestead he has his fifth championship, moving him within two of Earnhardt and Richard Petty for first on NASCAR's all-time list.

And yes, Gordon still thinks of catching those drivers even though he's said repeatedly he doesn't.

"I never said I didn't want it," Gordon said. "That engine fires up, I get in that car, there is nobody more driven than me."

There is nothing to suggest Gordon won't get his fifth title this year. He's finished in the top 12 in all eight races and has six finishes in the top four, including runner-up finishes at California, Las Vegas and Martinsville.

He's had more opportunities to win this season than the last two combined.

And, according to NASCAR stats, a handful of drivers who led the points standings after eight races went on to win the championship.

"Yeah, that was before the Chase," Gordon told a NASCAR spokesman who ran off the list of years that feat occurred.

But Gordon won't allow himself to look that far ahead. As he said, he races lap to lap and race to race, not season to season. That kind of focus has put him in position to one day be honored like Earnhardt.

For a few moments on Saturday, Gordon even raced like Earnhardt as he took the lead from Stewart with 11 laps remaining. He gave Stewart a little nudge to get an already loose car looser and then dove inside to make the pass.

Stewart was so upset after leading a race-high 132 laps that he left the track without talking to reporters, a move that could draw him a fine since the top three finishers are required to come to the media room for interviews after a race.

Gordon easily could have been the frustrated one had he not gotten a big break with 29 laps remaining.

When caution came out for a multi-car wreck he was headed down pit road for a four-tire stop. His spotter and Letarte convinced him there was time to complete the stop before Stewart came around and put him a lap down.

By doing so, Gordon moved into the lead a few laps later when Stewart pitted under caution.

"We got lucky getting on pit road when the caution came out," Gordon said. "I almost drove through the pit. Steve made the call. I love him as a crew chief. He's awesome and as sharp as can be.

"He made the call and he talked to the spotter and me and the team. He's so cool under pressure. Man, this is awesome."

Gordon isn't bad under pressure, either. Otherwise he wouldn't be close to 76 wins.

He's also pretty witty.

Reminded he has a chance to pass Earnhardt next week at Talladega, where in 2004 fans pelted his car with cans and bottles after he beat Earnhardt Jr. for the win, he said, "I might just carry that flag around for the whole race. They might not throw things at me."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.