Gordon still in play, Bayne's reality check and more reckless driving
Jeff Gordon showed how much he still cares with his post-race celebration
Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne had a rough three days in Phoenix
The new points system may be causing drivers to perform more recklessly
Kyle Busch very nearly won the weekend, collecting trophies in the Nationwide and truck series races at Phoenix International Raceway. He only managed a runner-up finish in the Sunday show, however, though he did collect a major ego boost when Jeff Gordon, upon breaking a 66-race winless streak, put his victory in perspective by marveling, "We beat Kyle Busch!"
Five things we learned at Phoenix:
1. Jeff Gordon still wants it, can do something about it. The 39-year-old won four championships and 58 races in his first nine Sprint Cup seasons. He's not won another title in a decade and just 25 races since, as the monster he helped spawn -- friend/teammate/protégé, Jimmie Johnson -- continues to consume the sport Gordon once dominated, winning a record five consecutive championships and a series-best 53 races in that span.
Johnson and Gordon each have 20 runner-up finishes since 2006, leading NASCAR, since Johnson's titles blitz began. But while Johnson has 35 wins, Gordon had won just nine entering Sunday. And a 66-race winless streak until chasing down Busch and running off with his 83rd career victory -- tying Cale Yarborough for fifth alltime -- and perpetrating an admittedly lame burnout. The blend of exuberance and exasperated relief at finally winning underscored just how much Gordon still cares as he enters what figures to be the latter stage of his career.
2. Trevor Baynia gets a dose of reality. Trevor Bayne provided NASCAR a much-needed mainstream-consumable moment in becoming the youngest Daytona 500 winner -- at 20 years, one day -- in just his second Sprint Cup race, racing the legendary No. 21 Ford for the equally legendary Wood Brothers. He was everywhere, from Conan O'Brien's monologue to daytime chat shows and seemingly every event in need of an instant celebrity.
This weekend in Phoenix marked his return to the decidedly less glamorous grind of a Nationwide Series driver running a partial Cup schedule with an underfunded team. Bayne crashed late in the Nationwide Series race for his full-time employer, Roush Fenway, finishing 31st. He was forced to utilize a backup car on Sunday after crashing in Cup practice. And just 50 laps into the Sprint Cup race, he was turned into the wall and wrecked out of the event by Travis Kvapil.
"That's tough coming off of our high at Daytona to come to this, but we've got a great race team behind us," said Bayne, who is officially racing for Nationwide points. "I hate it ended this way this weekend, but we'll be back.
3. New points system is making drivers loco. Or something is. For the second consecutive week, drivers griped aside crumpled cars about the tenor of racing in early laps. "It's kind of embarrassing to be quite honest with you," said Clint Bowyer, whose No. 33 Chevrolet was one of 13 impacted by a Lap 65 accident started by contact between Matt Kenseth and Brian Vickers. "We're all professionals, and we should be driving like it." Vickers said the 2003 series champion was due some payback, although the incident seemed relatively benign.
Earlier, Busch had chopped into Carl Edwards, sending the No. 99 Ford into the wall and the garage for lengthy repairs and a 28th-place finish. Busch apologized. Edwards seemed to accept it, prolonging the détente between the former nemeses. But something has to be behind this spate of reckless, or at least ultra aggressive, driving and a manic grab for points in the new sequential scoring system is a likely culprit considering its punitive impact on low finishers.
Four-time Chase for the Championship qualifier Jeff Burton is becoming the embodiment of the struggle from the rear after being caught in the Lap 65 incident. Burton finished 26th. An expired engine led to a 36th-place result in the Daytona 500. He is 32nd in points. It's extremely early to speculate about the Chase field, but perhaps the drivers are doing it already.
4. A Jimmie-less series is a boring series. NASCAR got as close to a Jimmie Johnson-less Sprint Cup series the past two weeks as it has the past decade, with the five-time defending series champion finishing an anonymous 27th in the Daytona 500 and qualifying and practicing blandly for Sunday's race. Bayne's victory filled the void for the first week of the season and Gordon's victory will have cachet for awhile. But as much as Johnson is criticized for being too boring, he is a missing element of the storyline when not running competitively. Johnson crept back into that meme on Sunday, leading 19 laps and finishing third.
5. There are still death traps at racetracks. Elliott Sadler found an angled section of unpadded barrier during a brutal crash at Pocono last season. David Ragan rammed into an alarmingly large exposed section of concrete wall coming out of Turn 4 at Phoenix Sunday after sustaining a tire failure.
Race tracks continue to field top-level NASCAR events at facilities in need of safety improvements. NASCAR continues to award races to these facilities. Whether it is an excessive reliance on what has to this point been an extremely safe new-age Sprint Cup race car, miscalculation on what treacherous spots a race car can find at high speed (certainly no excuse on Sunday), or a resistance for the cost of installing SAFER barriers throughout a facility, the sport -- meaning promoters and NASCAR -- are getting lucky. Lucky that Ragan walked out of his car like Sadler did. Ten years after the last on-track death of a NASCAR driver -- Dale Earnhardt -- the sport should realize luck runs out.
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