|Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR|
Out of all the Hendrick cars, Jeff Gordon qualified the highest at 20th, followed by Mark Martin, who was 23rd, Jimmie Johnson in 28th, and finally Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 35th. It was safe to say none of the Hendrick drivers were pleased with their qualifying positions. The Hendrick drivers could hope that their cars were going to be fast when it came time to race on Sunday.
For the driver of the No. 5 Go Daddy car, his day looked to be great; however, when the Big One happened on lap 67, Mark sadly got some damage to the nose of his car. But that damage didn’t stop Mark from driving his way through the field. To sum it up, Mark Martin had a pretty good day, bringing his No. 5 Go Daddy Chevy home in 13th place. This also marks the second race with new crew chief Lance McGrew. Two races into the season, the No. 5 ranks sixth in the points standings. Is this a good team to look out for? We shall see.
Jimmie Johnson had an up-and-down day Sunday. On lap 129, the No. 48 car made his way down pit road to receive minor adjustments; this would allow the five-time Sprint Cup champion to gain two spots. For about 50 laps, Jimmie was in third battling Tony Stewart and fellow teammate Jeff Gordon. However, on lap 176 Jimmie took second from his teammate; now Jimmie’s eyes were on that 14 car for first place. When the green flag pit cycle happened on lap 184, Jimmie took the lead from Tony. With another quick pit stop thanks to the 48 crew and crew chief Chad Knaus, Jimmie got to keep the lead.
Jimmie would keep that lead to about lap 205 when teammate Jeff Gordon took it over yet again. On lap 218 Joey Logano’s engine blew, bringing out the race's seventh caution. The 48 car came in to pit. Jimmie would have started second on the restart, but a mishap with lug nuts resulted in an 18-second stop and caused him to lose seven spots. But have no fear - Jimmie would bounce back from that and would finish in 3rd place. That goes to show that with great teamwork and effort, you can bounce back from your mistakes. Jimmie now sits 13th in the points standings.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
For Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88, he would have to make his way from 35th to the top if he wanted to contend for this race. Junior managed to miss the Big One, which took out 13 cars, with great help from his spotter. Junior didn’t get any damage, despite making slight contact with another car. However, when coming down to pit after that red flag, Junior would have to serve a penalty for entering too fast.
That wasn’t the end of Junior’s problems; on about lap 240, he radioed in saying he felt a loose wheel. Having to pit would cause them to go a lap down. However, that was good for them if this race stayed green - they could make it on fuel while the other cars couldn’t. With 26 to go the final caution came out. Junior got the lucky dog, pitted for four fresh tires and was back on the lead lap.
He would restart 13th; before you knew it, that 88 car was moving on up. After going a lap down, Dale Jr. managed to overcome it and finish 10th. The finish moved Dale Jr. up to 17th in points. What a way to start off the season with new crew chief Steve Letarte.
Jeff Gordon had a full-out amazing day from the start of that green flag. He may have started 20th, but that didn’t slow down the No. 24 car. Jeff found the speed he needed with his new crew chief Alan Gustafson. However, a wreck triggered by Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards on lap 59 caused Gordon to hit the wall, damaging the right side of the car. It looked like the 24's chances for a win were over. But when Gordon took the lead on lap 77, he knew he had a car to win with. Gordon would go on and lead the most laps Sunday (at 138), but not before he overcame his biggest challenge: Kyle Busch.
As the laps were winding down, it would look to be a Busch win, as he sought to sweep Phoenix. But all of sudden, like he was being shot out of a cannon, here came that 24 car. The two would battle for a few laps. Jeff would eventually bump Kyle Busch out of the way and take the lead.
By making that move, Jeff Gordon ended his 66-race winless streak (he hadn’t won a race since 2009). Jeff was one happy driver to finally end this streak. His victory at Phoenix puts him at 83 Cup wins, tying him with Cale Yarborough for fifth on the all-time wins list. He also jumped a staggering 21 spots to fifth in the points standings.
I close with a quote from our race winner Jeff Gordon:
"Gosh, you know, I'm going to have to go back and watch it on TV. I drove in deep into (Turn) 1 and got to him (Kyle Busch) and I could tell he was having to really get after it right then; and then I got underneath him and got off of (Turn) 4 and I knew coming down the front straightaway that he was going to kind of pinch me down into (Turn) 1 and he did and I got a little loose. Then I just drifted up the track and I didn't know what was going to happen at that moment but when they said we were 'clear' then I just went. We had a great car and catching him was one thing and passing him was going to be a whole lot different deal. And it worked out."