AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) _ Jeff Gordon never has been a favorite among fans of the late Dale Earnhardt.
At the time Earnhardt died in a crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, Gordon was sneaking up on most of his records and that didn't sit well with fans of The Intimidator, considered by many the greatest driver in NASCAR history.
So there certainly were mixed feelings Saturday night when Gordon, winning for the first time since last July, matched Earnhardt's 76 career victories, tying him for sixth on the career win list.
Just as many of those Earnhardt aficionados were working up the proper rage, a Hendrick Motorsports crewman dashed onto pit lane and handed Gordon a flag bearing Earnhardt's famed No. 3.
The four-time NASCAR champion from Pittsboro, Ind., then made a joyous victory lap around the 1-mile oval holding the flag out the window for all to see.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., coming off a disappointing race in which he finished 19th, said he saw Gordon with the flag on one of the track's big screen TVs.
``Congratulations to Jeff. He's a class act and I'm happy for him,'' Junior said. ``I ran over to Victory Lane to shake his hand and let him know.
``I know a lot of fans of my dad's aren't the biggest Jeff Gordon fans, but he and my dad were business partners on a lot of things and worked together a lot more than most people realize.''
Gordon said the flag was simply to honor a man and a racer he respected.
``I will say that Senior and I, we did have a rivalry on the racetrack,'' Gordon said. ``We loved to beat one another. We battled hard on the track and he certainly didn't mind shoving me around.
``You know, I just think that he was very good at not carrying that off the racetrack, and because of the way he treated me off the racetrack. Then I kind of understood that you know, where the boundaries were and felt pretty fortunate. Most guys keep what's on the racetrack on the racetrack and don't get wound up with it off the racetrack.''
He has been thinking about this win for a long time, since winning his 75th at Chicagoland Speedway last July. That flag has been in the No. 24 team's hauler ever since.
More than Earnhardt, though, what was most on Gordon's mind in the ensuing time was the fact that he wasn't winning and that he had thrown away at least a half-dozen good chances to reach Victory Lane.
``Oh, yeah, it bothered the heck out of me,'' Gordon said. ``As far as I'm concerned, every time we have a car capable of winning, every time (crew chief) Steve (Letarte) and those guys put me in position to win, we need to win. And I don't like giving up wins.
``Plus, in the last couple of years, I haven't had many opportunities to win, so I really didn't like giving them up. But I've had more opportunities to win already in eight races (this season) than I've had the last two years.''
This one, his first career win at Phoenix, almost slipped away, too.
Gordon was running second to Tony Stewart when he drove onto pit lane under the green flag for his final pit stop of the night. As he drove slowly toward his pit, a three-car crash brought out a caution flag and put Gordon in danger of losing a lap to the leaders.
The timing was perfect, though, as Gordon's team got him out with four fresh tires and a full tank of gas before Stewart reached the finish line. That left him on the back of the lead lap and, when the rest of the leaders pitted under caution, Gordon stayed on track and took the lead.
Then he found himself in a duel with the determined Stewart, who managed to squeeze past to regain the lead on lap 299 of the 312-lap race.
``I was a little bit angry because I felt like we had messed up again,'' Gordon said. ``The team gave me the car, gave me the position, gave me everything and here I was going to lose it on the racetrack. I wanted to get a win. I was hungry for it.''
Gordon came right back to bump past Stewart on the next lap and pulled away to the victory.
``I had to race him pretty hard, shove him out of the way a little bit, and I think made him mad and Tony just stuck his nose in there and made a great move and he had me. I thought our night was done.
``Luckily, I didn't give up on it. I got right on him, looked like he got loose and I was able to get underneath him. Once I got underneath him, I just carried the momentum and carried him wide a little bit down there and our car up front was just awesome.''
The historic victory left Gordon with a 74-point lead over Jeff Burton in the Nextel Cup points heading to Talladega next Sunday.
Meanwhile, he can enjoy his latest accomplishment for a while.
``I had so much fun racing with Dale and I miss him a lot out there,'' Gordon said. ``To do something he has done in this sport is pretty overwhelming for anybody, and it is for me.
``I can't believe that we've won 76 races, and, you know, it feels good to get back into Victory Lane and just to be able to hold that flag.''