Gordon gets 85th win the old way

HAMPTON, Ga. -- This was the Jeff Gordon of old, interrupted by the Jeff Gordon of recent years, finished off by the Jeff Gordon of old.

He was dominant, then tentative, then simply dazzling as he held off teammate Jimmie Johnson in a 12-lap duel to the finish, with both cars sideways off the corners.

Crew chief Alan Gustafson put it best as Gordon completed his cool-down lap: "That's Jeff Gordon right there."

The classic Jeff Gordon, that is -- the one who took sole possession of third place among all-time Cup winners with his 85th career victory in Tuesday's rain-delayed running of the AdvoCare 500.

At 40, at last, he was back to the Jeff Gordon who was willing and entirely able to drive a loose car, like the Jeff Gordon who first showed up with a peach-fuzz mustache.

"Man, I was sliding around," Gordon said in a flashback to his youthful glee.

He now trails only Richard Petty's 200 wins and David Pearson's 105 on the all-time list. Asked if he can catch Pearson before his career is over, Gordon laughed and then allowed himself to hope, coming off his third win of this season.

"The way things are going right now, the way this team has rejuvenated me, and the confidence I have in what I'm doing right now -- anything is possible when you've got this guy as a crew chief," he said, gesturing to Gustafson.

Gustafson, the fourth crew chief Gordon has had since his storied pairing with Ray Evernham, has Gordon more enthusiastic and aggressive than anyone since Evernham.

And like Evernham, Gustafson kept Gordon in the hunt when the driver was about to engage in one of his biggest gripes of recent years -- about a race car that had gone too loose for his comfort.

As Johnson charged in the waning laps, Gordon admitted grumbling on the radio, "'Man, we're done. The thing just got too loose.'

"Alan was encouraging me, 'Man, we can get it done.'"

So Gordon hung on, using throttle control and precision steering, just like the kid called Wonder Boy used to.

The duel left Johnson exhilarated, even in defeat.

"To race that hard, that sideways, at 180 mph, lap after lap, is a good time," Johnson said.

Gordon led 146 of the 325 laps, more than twice as many as next-best Matt Kenseth's 64. But Gordon's runaways ebbed and flowed.

He was fine until just past the halfway point, when the last remnants of the tropical depression that had delayed this race since Sunday crept in again in the form of intermittent clouds of heavy mist that dampened the track.

At one point there was a 24-minute red flag due to the drizzle. And for a while after that, Gordon and the 24 car were tentative, dropping back as far as ninth. Kenseth took charge in those middle stages.

But after a restart with 71 laps left, Gordon clearly had the fastest car on the track. The final pit stops completed, Gordon took the lead for keeps with 37 to go. But trouble soon developed that made him earn the win.

"When we pulled away from 'em after that last stop, I felt pretty good, pretty comfortable, the car was driving perfect, and then all of a sudden with about 15 to go, it really started loosening up."

And up roared Johnson.

"I was hoping to look up and see him loosening up as well," Gordon said. "But if he was, he wasn't showing it, 'cause he was coming hard."

Gordon gave more ground after "I made a few mistakes trying to search around and figure out where I could get my car to drive a little tighter," Gordon said. "I had to go back to what I was doing. I had to get to the bottom in [Turns] 3 and 4, and to the top in 1 and 2."

That way, he fought off several Johnson runs up alongside.

"I'm so glad I grew up racing in the dirt," Johnson said afterward. "If I hadn't grown up racing around all those deserts and stadium tracks, I think I would have spun out four or five times there at the end."

It was when he very nearly did, within sight of the white flag, that Gordon finally breathed a little relief.

But first, "Jimmie got underneath me off 2, probably with five or six laps to go," Gordon said. "I kind of cleared him, and then we got into 3 and he got right up on me and got me real loose and got up underneath me, but when he didn't complete the pass, it gave me a little bit of hope."

Then Johnson "got real loose off of 4 coming to take the white, and I think that was the turning point," Gordon said. "I could breathe a little sigh of relief," because he'd gained just enough cushion that "I could turn it straight" through the corners the rest of the way.

"I have a lot of satisfaction in racing my friend and teammate -- and it's Jeff Gordon," Johnson said. "He may not have had the dominance in recent years that we've seen before, but it's still Jeff Gordon."

Sure is.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.