The present and future of NASCAR were on display Saturday, with Jeff Gordon winning the inaugural Outback Steakhouse 200 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. wrapping up his second straight NASCAR Busch Series championship.
Gordon took the lead in the 200-lap event at Phoenix International Speedway with a strong outside pass on Jimmy Spencer 20 laps from the end, then pulled away to win his first Busch Series race since October of 1992.
The win came in his sixth and last start in a limited return to the Busch Series for the driver who moved up to Winston Cup in 1993 and has won three of the last four championships in NASCAR's top stock car series.
"This is great," said Gordon, who co-owns the Busch team with his wife, Brooke, and former Winston Cup crew chief Ray Evernham. "We wanted to go to victory lane in our first year out."
Gordon, 28, had finished second in each of his two previous Busch starts.
Earnhardt, who drives for his father, seven-time Winston Cup champ Dale Earnhardt, got off to a slow start in 1999, but still took the points lead for the first time in the ninth race of the 32-race season. He fell behind once more, but took the top spot for good with a victory in Madison, Ill., on July 31 in the 21st race of the year.
Going into Saturday's race, Little E needed only to add 29 points to his lead to beat Matt Kenseth, who was also last year's runner-up. He did it by taking second from Spencer struggling with a bad set of tires after his last stop in the late going as Kenseth slipped from fifth to seventh during the last 20 laps on the one-mile oval.
Earnhardt wound up with a 189-point lead five more than he needed with only the race next Saturday in Homestead, Fla., remaining.
"It feels really good," said Earnhardt, who will move up to Winston Cup, along with Kenseth, next season. "It didn't look real good in the beginning of the year. We made some mistakes that got us behind, but these guys stuck with me."
Kenseth said, "We gave it our best shot and just came up short. Everybody wants to be champion. But, if you're going to get beat, you might as well get beat by the best."
Earnhardt, who turned 25 on Oct. 10, admitted he was more nervous in recent weeks than he was during last year's tight stretch run.
"I was a rookie, so I guess it was all right if I would have lost it last year," he said. "This time, we were the team to beat. Matkept it close and there were some times in the last few weeks when I couldn't sleep very well."
The elder Earnhardt, who will race here in Sunday's Checker Auto Parts-Dura Lube 500k, said, "I'm proud of my kid and I'm proud of this team too. It gets pretty tough out there, but they kept their cool and got the job done. Now we can go down and enjoy next week in Homestead."
Gordon averaged 115.053 mph in the race. It was the fourth Busch Series win for the driver who has 49 Winston Cup victories.
Spencer finished third, followed by Jeff Burton, Kenny Wallace, Ron Hornaday Jr. and Kenseth.
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