Lee Spencer on NASCAR’s legendary No. 24, whose quest for one last hurrah might yet happen.
Don’t make the mistake of calling Jeff Gordon a Sprint Cup Champion.
The four-time champion at NASCAR’s highest level will graciously point out that his titles all came under the Winston Cup banner – before Sprint, before Nextel and before the Chase for the Sprint Cup was introduced for the 2004 season.
Despite 92 wins, 80 poles (including three this year), 323 top-fives and 476 top-10 finishes in 787 starts, the one accomplishment missing from Gordon’s resume is an elusive championship under the Chase format.
But after 23 years on NASCAR’s top tour, Gordon, who will retire at the end of the 2015 season, has one final shot to win the Chase for the Sprint Cup. His seventh-place finish at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday secured a 12th-place spot on the grid for Gordon.
Although Gordon remained in the top-15 for most of the season, with no wins, just three top-fives and 13 top-10s after 26 races, to eventually make his final Chase was, in his own words, quite a “relief”.
“I would have been very disappointed had we not made the Chase,” Gordon said. “So, I’m glad we made it, and these guys have worked hard. They deserve to be in it. And that means a lot; especially in my final year; and to know that in 11 out of 12 Chases, we’ve made it. So that’s why there’s a lot of relief. And we’re not done yet. We’re going to work hard and see what we can do, and see how far we can go.”
NASCAR introduced a new elimination format for last year’s Chase, and expanded the field to 16. Given Gordon’s performances in the first 26 events of 2014 – where he led the point standings for 17 of those races – he was a favourite entering the final 10 races. Although Gordon was forced to relinquish the top spot once the points were reset after Richmond, with three wins, he entered the playoffs second in the standings.
A victory at Dover, the third race of the Challenger Round, vaulted Gordon back to the top and on to the Contender Round. Despite a 14th-place finish at Kansas Speedway, and surviving Talladega Superspeedway with a 26th-place result, Gordon’s runner-up finish at Charlotte buoyed the No. 24 Chevy to the Eliminator Eight round. However, his two second-place finishes at Martinsville Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway were not enough to overcome a 29th-place result following a run in with Brad Keselowski at Texas Motor Speedway.
Gordon knows his team must get off to the right start at Chicagoland Speedway this weekend if he’s to transfer through the first three rounds and emerge as one of the final four championship contenders at Homestead-Miami Speedway. With the current format, there is no room for error.
“You’ve got to be on you’re A-game from the beginning,” Gordon said. “And it doesn’t mean that you have to win. You’ve got to be solid. So, there’s a couple of different strategies. I think, when the Chase starts, I think it’s everybody’s intention that it feels like they have a shot at the championship; at least they’re real contenders. Man, we want to come out of the gate showing everybody who they’re going to have to beat for this championship.
“So, you’ve got that mentality and thought process. And then you’ve got others who are saying: ‘You know what? We have the ability to just be super-consistent and make our way all the way to Homestead by being really solid. Maybe we’re not the fastest team or the best one out there, but watch what we can do.’”
That was the scenario for Ryan Newman who, like Gordon now, was winless last season. But the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing team finished 15th or better in all but one of the last 10 races. Newman’s second-place finish at Homestead elevated the team to second in the final standings – the driver’s career-best result.
“I think those create all the makings of a great storyline and a lot of drama,” Gordon said. “But it adds a tremendous amount of stress to you. I just remember last year, starting off at Chicago, being – and maybe it’s because I did feel like we had a shot at the championship – but just carrying more load on my shoulders and feeling the tension in the garage area with those that were in the Chase and with my team, more so than I ever had before.
“And I just felt like it was because it seemed like, with that format, you just can’t really afford to make any mistakes.”
Gordon has visited victory lane at all of the final 10 venues, and amassed 35 wins at the Chase tracks along the way. Although he acknowledges that Hendrick Motorsports is “off right now as an organization”, the driver who has spent his entire career behind the wheel of the No. 24 Chevy is confident his team will step up when it counts.
“I guarantee you that we’re not going to stop working hard until we get back on top,” Gordon said. “The competition has done an amazing job with the work that they’ve done in getting an edge. And I give them nothing but credit for it. And just like they’ve used us as motivation in the past of how good our teams have been, and how we’ve worked together and have dominated, they’ve utilized that and now we’re utilizing it, as well as motivation.”
As Gordon enters the twilight of what has undoubtedly been an illustrious career, going into what will be his last ever Chase, the driver of the now legendary No. 24 car will be hoping some of that hard work pays off just one last time.