During the final 20 laps Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, Jeff Gordon found a way to beat the driver perhaps closest to matching Gordon's talent during his prime.
"We beat Kyle Busch! Are you kidding me? Pinch me, man! Pinch me!"
No one stays atop NASCAR's throne forever. Richard Petty. David Pearson. Cale Yarborough. Bobby Allison. Bill Elliott. Darrell Waltrip. Rusty Wallace. Dale Earnhardt. Jeff Gordon. Jimmie Johnson.
And now perhaps Kyle Busch, with his 88 victories in NASCAR's three major touring series, could be considered today's heir apparent. So for Gordon to beat Busch at his best was like turning the clock back 15 years, when it was the Intimidator and the Golden Boy going toe-to toe, week-in and week-out.
"He's tough," Gordon said of his former Hendrick teammate. "I respect his talent, that team, and he's aggressive. I think everybody knows, you don't want to have to restart up against him. He's just won a lot of stuff lately. And to be quite honest with you, to me, there's nothing cooler."
Busch won Friday night's Truck race. He never gave up the lead in Saturday's Nationwide race. And when he wrestled the lead away from Tony Stewart on a restart with 21 laps to go Sunday, it seemed that Busch was destined to sweep all three races at Phoenix. But Gordon had other plans.
"I think he was on a mission [Sunday], that's for sure. And when Jeff Gordon has a good car and he has the opportunity to beat you, he's going to beat you," Busch said. "There's no doubt about that. He's my hero and I've always watched him and what he's been able to accomplish over the years. It's no surprise that he beat us."
Gordon should have won at least four times in 2010 but didn't, for a variety of reasons. So given the chance in the second race of 2011, Gordon didn't let the opportunity slip away.
"Man, what an awesome, awesome, feeling it is when you've got the car right like that," Gordon said. "And they give you 20 [laps] to go and it's your job to go get it done, you've got what you need to go do that and then you pull it off."
Gordon passed Stewart for second on Lap 292, but was still more than a half-second behind Busch with the laps winding down. But as Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet began to reel in the No. 18 Toyota -- chipping away precious hundredths of a second with every lap -- the estimated 75,000 in attendance began to believe in something special, standing almost in wonder as the gap between the two cars closed.
And on Lap 304, eight laps from the checkered, Gordon found himself in a long-familiar spot. And unlike 2010, when it seemed like everything that could go wrong, did -- he looked again like the driver who seemed at one time to be a shoo-in to join Petty and Pearson as the only drivers to win more than 100 Cup races in their careers.
"I thought, 'Even if I catch him, what am I going to do with him?' " Gordon said. "We caught him, he got loose, I got underneath him and I didn't know what to expect. I got into [Turn 1], he was right on my door. I got loose, got up into him, they said 'clear' and I went. Because I knew I'd need to get away from him as fast as I could."
Busch could see Gordon coming and realized there was little he could do to halt Gordon's charge.
"He was gaining on me really good and I knew he was going to get to me eventually and this place is so flat and it's one groove that we all run the bottom," Busch said. "He got so tucked up behind me in [Turns 3 and 4], he got me loose and I could not put the gas down. I mean, he was so far up underneath me that I could not go forward.
"So I was loose, and he was just waiting for the exit of the turn to turn underneath me and get alongside of me and then once we got down into Turn 1, we both drove off in there pretty deep and I had enough where I could slow down and kind of run on what I thought would be the second lane. And he just drifted up a little bit into me and knocked me out of the way."
Busch admitted the bump didn't matter to the eventual outcome.
"He had a fast enough car," Busch said. "He could have done that, either way. He would have won if he didn't do it, if he did do it. It has nothing to do with how he won."
Once he got by Busch, Gordon continued to pull away, eventually winning by 1.137 seconds. It was a victory that finally tied him with Yarborough at 83 victories, one shy of Allison and Waltrip.
As the fans cheered and clapped and waved their hands, Gordon did perhaps the worst burnout in the history of PIR. But when you haven't won in 66 races, you don't care about style points.
"It's been a long time, I know," Gordon said. "I'm going to savor this one so much.
"I've been tweeting lately for the first time, and all of the stuff the people have been saying, the motivation has been unbelievably inspiring. And then to see that crowd stick around to see my really lame burnout -- because I stink at them -- they loved the show. Man, we hope we can give them some more shows like that this year. That was awesome."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.