AVONDALE, Ariz. – Doubt had cast its shadow over Jeff Gordon.
He still had the drive. He just wasn’t sure if he could keep up anymore in a sport that has changed so much since his heyday of reeling off wins and championships.
A winless streak stretching nearly two years tends to have that affect, even for a four-time series champion who remains one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers.
“Cars have changed, tires have changed, competition has changed,” Gordon said. “So when you go through a streak without winning, you think, ‘OK, is it me or what is it?’ ”
One emotional weekend in the desert answered at least some of his questions.
Battling back from a poor qualifying session, a brush with the wall and a host of other potential potholes, Gordon ended his winless streak at 66 races at Phoenix International Raceway, passing Kyle Busch with eight laps left and stretching the lead toward the checkers.
Just one early-season win on the long road to the Chase, but an important one for Gordon, his new crew chief, the No. 24 team, and the entire Hendrick Motorsports organization.
It proves that Gordon, closing in on 40, still has what it takes to win races, and possibly contend for another title. It shows that owner Rick Hendrick’s offseason shuffling of teams may be just what the organization needed to get someone besides Jimmie Johnson running up front and winning races.
Perhaps most important, it gives Gordon and everyone on his team confidence, a boost that could lead to more joyous celebrations like the one they had in Victory Lane at PIR on Sunday.
“He’s been right there, but we have not … he has not had that edge,” Hendrick said. “I think we are going to see a lot of momentum out of that team starting right now.”
Gordon had some bad momentum going during his winless streak.
It’s not like he was horrible, a washed-up driver desperately clinging to the hope he could keep up with the younger hotshots. Gordon did, after all, finish second eight times and made the Chase for the Championship each of the past two seasons.
He just couldn’t get to the checkers first, and the pressure weighed on him a little more with each race.
“He’s a competitor, he’s a champion and, you know, everyone gets down,” Hendrick said. “I get down, we all get down and you have to have some reason to get excited again.”
Gordon’s came on Sunday – after a few mishaps.
New crew chief Alan Gustafson, who’s won with Kyle Busch and Mark Martin in the past, and the No. 24 team missed badly on the setup for Friday’s practice and didn’t get it exactly right Saturday, either, qualifying 20th.
They worked it out before the race, though, and Gordon felt he had a car he could work with.
“They dropped the green flag and I knew we had something special,” he said.