The No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team has kept a flag bearing the late Dale Earnhardt's famed No. 3 in its hauler since last July, just awaiting Jeff Gordon's next NASCAR Nextel Cup win.
It was a long wait, but the crew was finally able to break out the flag Saturday night after Gordon, getting a little luck and making a gutsy pass for the lead, grabbed that historic victory at Phoenix International Raceway.
The win by the four-time series champion tied Earnhardt for sixth place on the career victory list with 76 and was also his first win on the one-mile Phoenix oval, leaving only Texas and Homestead as active tracks where he has yet to find Victory Circle.
After ending the 26-race victory drought, Gordon stopped on the front straightaway to pick up the black, red and white Earnhardt flag, holding it proudly out the window for his slow victory lap as the big crowd paid homage to both Gordon and seven-time champion Earnhardt.
"It means the world," Gordon said. "Holding that 3 flag, it's certainly by no means saying we're as good as him. I learned so much from him. We wanted to honor him. We've been holding on to that flag for a long time."
One of the first drivers to congratulate Gordon in Victory Circle was Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"That means the world to me because I didn't want to come across the wrong way," Gordon said. "We wanted to show tribute and honor."
Gordon started from the pole and led early, but he spent most of the 312-lap race following Tony Stewart, who appeared to be on the way to an easy victory.
As the leaders began a series of green-flag pit stops late in the race, Gordon drove onto pit road at the end of lap 283. As he drove slowly toward his pit at the end of pit road, a three-car crash brought out the yellow flag.
The timing was perfect for Gordon, who was able to finish his pit stop and head back toward the track before leader Stewart came back to the finish line, thereby keeping Gordon on the lead lap.
When all the other leaders pitted under the caution flag, Gordon stayed on track and took the lead.
Once the green flag came back out on lap 294, Stewart tried desperately to regain the top spot. As Gordon struggled to get by Martin Truex Jr., who had pitted before the yellow and was on the end of the lead lap, Stewart saw his chance.
On lap 299, Stewart squeezed his Chevrolet between Gordon and Truex and somehow drove to the lead. But Gordon wouldn't quit, staying on Stewart's rear bumper and then driving under him to regain the lead for good on lap 300.
"I drove my guts out," Gordon said. "I've never had to work so hard."
Gordon pulled away to finish about six car-lengths ahead of Stewart.
Hendrick cars have now won five of eight races this year and Gordon, who joined teammates Jimmie Johnson (3) and Kyle Busch (1) as a winner in 2007, is off to one of the best starts of his career with six top five finishes and seven top 10s.
"We didn't lead a ton, but we had a good car," said Gordon, who led 53 laps. "It all did fall in our lap.
"I almost drove through the pit. [Crew chief] Steve [Letarte] made the call [to stop] and I love him. He's as sharp as can be. He's so cool under pressure."
The disappointed Stewart, who led a race-high 132 laps, said, "I felt like the second half of the race we had a good car."
Denny Hamlin may have had the best car on the track Saturday. He led 70 laps and was still out ahead when he was caught speeding entering pit road on lap 99. Hamlin was penalized to the back of the longest line (30th) for the restart on lap 104.
That didn't slow him down much. Hamlin, Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, charged back into contention and finished third.
It was the third race for NASCAR's new Car of Tomorrow and its first test on a track longer than a half mile. Hamlin wasn't impressed with the bigger, bulkier car.
"If that was the point of it, to make it more competitive for everyone, the mission failed, in my opinion," Hamlin said. "I don't know how we're going to run these cars on bigger tracks without further changes."
Reigning Nextel Cup champion Johnson, finished fourth, followed by Matt Kenseth, Jeff Green and Kyle Busch, in another Hendrick Chevrolet.
Kevin Harvick, who won both Cup races in Phoenix last year, led some laps early and wound up 10th.