Gordon back on top of NASCAR

August 17, 2014 No Comments

BvRUi61IEAApQRLBrian Wiggins, Senior Writer 

BROOKLYN,MI— The majority of the talk around Jeff Gordon throughout recent years hasn’t been when he’s going to win his next race as much as it has been if he is going to win another.

When Gordon won the 2001 Cup Series championship, he was on top of the world. He was a threat to win at every race track and was seemingly always in the talk when it came to championship favorites.

After a few near-misses at the championship in 2004 and 2007, Gordon hit a rough patch. He became a driver that struggled to win one race, let alone a championship.

Those years of futility lead to constant questions as to how much longer Gordon would be behind the wheel of the No.24.

In 2011, car owner Rick Hendrick shuffled up the organization. Hendrick swapped the crews of Gordon and Earnhardt Jr and gave the four-time champion the highly-touted Alan Gustafson as his crew chief.

During the early stages of the Gustafson/Gordon era, things didn’t go as planed. Despite a hot start by winning their second race together at Phoenix, it wasn’t the dream relationship everyone had hoped it would be. The two were supposed to bring Gordon back into championship form and get him back to being a contender for wins on a regular basis.

Over their first three seasons together, the duo only managed to record seven victories. While to many that may seem like a successful run, it doesn’t live up to the Jimmie Johnson’s of the world when you’re only contending for a win at select tracks.

When 2014 began, it looked as though Gordon was up to his usual ways over recent years. He became a driver that could top-five and top-ten the field until no end. But the winning still wasn’t there.

As the No.24 got to the checkered flag first at Kansas Speedway, something changed. It was only one win, but it was a win Gordon and team desperately needed and in a fashion that boosted the team. In that race, Gordon beat out early season favorite, Kevin Harvick, to the line for the win.

While it took Gordon until the Brickyard 400 in July too pick up his second win of the season, all the makings were there for a championship run.

Sunday, Gordon picked up his second win in four races and his third of the season.

“It’s not something that’s happened overnight, it’s something that’s been cultivated over a long period of time,” crew chief Gustafson said after the race at Michigan.

When Gordon was at his low point in his career and issues with his back began to surface, many wrote off the four-time champion from ever winning another Sprint Cup championship. The rapid development of current Nationwide Series points leader and Hendrick development driver, Chase Elliott, only furthered the talks. 2014 has silenced the Gordon critics over recent years and has got them talking once again about him as a favorite—if not the driver to beat— for the championship.

“It’s great to see Jeff so happy, it’s like he’s a little kid again,” Hendrick said about Gordon. “I think what I see now with Jeff today is how smart he is. If something happens in front of him, or if somebody blocks him like they did today, he’ll just back off and let them use their stuff up and then he’ll pass them.

“You just don’t see him making any mistakes.”

On Sunday, Gordon picked up his ninety-first career Sprint Cup Series win. When he was at his low point, people saw Gordon win and wondered if it was the last time they would see the legendary driver in victory lane. Now, they know the No.24 is going to roll into victory lane and it will happen sometime soon.

“There’s got to be some advantages to being forty-three [years old] out there,” Gordon joked. “I think that I’ve always felt that to be a top-driver in this series you’ve got to balance out with being aggressive and being smart.

“Right now, I’ve got great restarts. I’ve got a great crew chief that believes in me and what I’m doing out there and I believe what he’s doing. I feel like I’m driving smart, but I’m confident enough in my car that I’m able to put it in places I’ve not been able to put it in the past.”

While many may see the present state of NASCAR racing to be the “Jimmie Johnson era”, we may be in a stage where we get to look back and enjoy for one more time the “Jeff Gordon era”.

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