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Pieces fall into place for Gordon

McClatchy Newspapers

AVONDALE, Ariz. — The timing could not have been more perfect in so many ways.

From the quick thinking to replace his helmet before the pace laps to the gutsy call to finish pitting late in the race even though a caution had been displayed, Jeff Gordon was at the right place at so many of the right times during Saturday’s Subway 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

The result was Gordon celebrating his first Nextel Cup Series victory of the season on a track where he had never won and tying the career mark of one of NASCAR’s biggest stars.

After holding off a daring challenge from Tony Stewart, Gordon claimed his 76th series win, tying the late seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt for sixth on the all-time list.

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After the cool-down lap, Gordon slowed on the track near his pit and the team’s tire specialist, Aaron Kuehn, rushed out with a black flag bearing the No. 3.

Gordon then took a victory lap around the 1-mile oval, waving the flag in honor of sharing a milestone with a driver he considered one of the best ever.

"We wanted to do something cool for Dale and pay tribute to him. I had so much fun racing with him, and I miss him a lot out there. To do something he has done in this sport is pretty overwhelming for anybody," Gordon said.

"I was afraid, you know, some people might think we were trying to get the Earnhardt fans or think that we’re, you know, saying we’re as good as him, and that wasn’t the case."

The large crowd on hand cheered loudly as Gordon took his victory lap. When he pulled into Victory Lane, one of the first to greet him was Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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