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In Jeff Gordon's win, Rick Hendrick sees vindication

  Heigh-Ho, Silver! Jeff Gordon is back on top of the NASCAR world (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Trevor Bayne came crashing back to earth here Sunday after a whirlwind week of riding the Daytona 500 wave.
   And Jeff Gordon -- whose pre-Daytona nod to Bayne as a driver worth working with may have helped NASCAR's newest star get his breakthrough victory – successfully launched this latest phase of his 20-year NASCAR career with a sparkling charge to victory in Round Two of the Sprint Cup season, the Phoenix 500.

   Bayne had trouble Friday when his right-front locked up in early practice; he scraped the wall and had to go to a backup. Then Saturday, while running seventh in the Nationwide race, he had more bad luck. And Sunday he misjudged traffic and crashed again.  
   "I don't know what happened," Bayne said. "We were battling with Casey Mears, and I don't know if it was Travis Kvapil, the car behind us or who, but something happened.  Either I came up or he poked his nose in there at the last second on the top of us getting into turn one.
    "I tried to stay in the gas and keep it turning, but it just backed into the wall. 
    "That's tough coming off of our high at Daytona. But we'll be back at Vegas."
    The other side of the emotional spectrum was Gordon's. And he was as giddy in victory as a teenager, remarkably out of character for one of this sport's 'senior statesmen,' soon to turn 40.
    The crowd loved it. Gordon is popular out here, but it's been a long time since he's heard the cheers for victory. And that clearly had an impact on him…..perhaps surprisingly for a guy who has now won more NASCAR races (83) than anyone but Richard Petty (200), David Pearson (105), Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip (84 each).
    Vindication, perhaps, for Rick Hendrick, the team owner, whose post-season shake-up was surprising -- moving Gordon to the Alan Gustafson team (replacing Mark Martin), moving Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the Steve Letarte team (replacing Gordon), and moving Martin to the Lance McGrew team (replacing Earnhardt).
    Sunday evening here, as track boss Bryan Sperber moved a giant CAT bulldozer to the post-race frontstretch to begin eating up the old asphalt and prep for the new asphalt for the fall chase race here, Hendrick was clearly relieved that this part of his big picture game plan is paying off.
    "It was like our first win….Jeff was so happy," Hendrick said. "To run Kyle Busch down…..I think he had something he wanted to prove.
    "When you talk about your pre season picks, and he's mentioned in the chase but not a guy that's going to win the championship….
    "…and it's been 60 some races since he won. Came close last year and had terrible luck at the end. 
     "When you're a champion like Jeff Gordon, you know that you can still do it.  And when people overlook you….
    "He's been right there….but we have not -- he has not had that edge."
    Until now.
     "The guy has all the talent in the world. But the calendar rolls on and everybody thinks he's got to be a young guy to do it.  But Mark Martin has proved that's not the case.
    "You've got to look at some of the most difficult tracks there are to drive and look at how good he is there.  I think we just needed to do something to rejuvenate our whole group. And Jeff sees this as an opportunity with Alan that he's got something to prove, and I think that's a good thing.
     "Dale needed Steve because he's a real Rah Rah guy. I looked at Lance as a technician, and that's what Mark is, and they have won together.
      "And then Alan and Jeff….
    "But it's early, and by summer you might be telling me I made a terrible mistake. But right now the chemistry looks really good and we are competitive."
    Hendrick, who has had Gordon in the fold for nearly 20 years, says he has sensed over the past two seasons that teammate Jimmie Johnson's run of championships may have played too much on Gordon. And Hendrick hints one part of his thinking in the shift was to move Gordon out of that realm and into another.
   "Being on the same team in the same building with the same equipment, you know it's got to work on you," Hendrick said.
   "Everybody gets down. I get down, we all get down. And you have to have some reason to get excited again. That's what this realignment was all about:   Let's light a spark."
    And putting Sunday's race into some perspective, Hendrick pointed this out:  "Denny Hamlin dominated the race here last fall…and he probably brought the same car back.
    "When you go back to a track where a guy has dominated like that, and then they are just a 10th place car….
    "We have got a lot of new stuff here….and if we were not good, well, we tried and tested and we thought this was better than what we had."

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