When NASCAR PR staffer Kerry Tharp ended his introduction of race winner Jeff Gordon in the post-race press conference at Kansas Speedway on Saturday night, Tharp said, “You’re our points leader, you’re going to be in the Chase.”
To which Gordon replied, “Can you guarantee that, Kerry?”
Tharp replied, “Jeff, trust me, I think you’re good.”
You can’t help blame Gordon if he’s still not 100 percent convinced that he’s made the Chase. He’s the ninth winner in the first 11 races – but there are still 15 more to go to round out the field to make this season’s expanded 16-driver Chase.
But if he wasn’t already sitting pretty coming into Saturday’s race, having been atop the Sprint Cup standings for the previous four weeks, Gordon definitely took a big step forward to not only making the Chase, but also towards earning his first Chase title and first overall NASCAR championship since 2001.
Prior to Saturday night and bereft of wins, Gordon did the next best thing by being arguably the most consistent driver in the Sprint Cup Series to date. If he couldn’t win a race, he did everything he could – and got everything he possibly could get from his race car – to earn the highest finish attainable race after race, week after week.
If he had nothing better than a 10th-place car, Gordon used his more than two decades of Cup experience to squeeze out perhaps a seventh, fifth or maybe even third place finish.
In other words, if you can’t wind up winning, compensate.
And ironically, Gordon earned his first win of 2014 at the same track where he won the first two Cup races ever held there in 2001 and 2002.
When asked what being the first three-time winner at the 1.5-mile Kansas track, Gordon chuckled and replied, “Well, it means that this is a good track for us. I mean, you know, you love winning anywhere, but there’s just something about this track, the transitions, the shape of the corners. I’ve just always enjoyed it.
“It feels awesome. It just feels so good to get that first win of the season, especially this year with the points structure and how close we’ve been so many weekends. I think that, while that’s a huge relief off our shoulder, it’s probably going to just make us that much hungrier to go get that next one.”
Gordon’s 89th career Cup win didn’t come easy. Up until the closing stages of Saturday’s race, he had led just one lap.
But on the final pit stop, Gordon beat eventual runner-up Kevin Harvick – who led the most laps and appeared headed to the win up until Gordon snookered him exiting pit road – and ultimately led the final eight laps to take the checkered flag.
“This has just always been one of my favorite tracks from that first race,” Gordon said. “I don’t know what it is about this race team and this racetrack for inaugural events (Saturday’s race was the first night Cup race ever at Kansas), but tonight’s win was very, very special, man, and it didn’t come easy.
“Nothing makes me more proud than when it’s all on the line and you get the lead and you’ve got to hold off somebody like Harvick and you get it done. It might have been by inches, but we got it done because that’s what builds momentum, that’s what builds a great race team and turns you not only into a winning team, but hopefully a championship team.”
Gordon knew he stole the win from Harvick, who was charging and closing fast on the last two laps, especially heading into the two final turns of the final lap.
Had the race gone one more lap, there’s a good possibility we would be talking about Gordon still looking for his first win, while Harvick would be celebrating as the first three-time winner of 2014.
But it didn’t turn out that way, and Gordon knew he escaped with a close victory.
“We came off pit road and the four tires that we took, the car was hooked up right away and I was excited about that, and then a lap or two later, I saw Kevin come off pit road onto the back straightaway and we got ahead of him, and I knew it was on at that moment.
“I knew I had to push hard, and the car felt good at that time, so I was like, oh, we’re okay. And then I had to maneuver through some lapped traffic, and (Harvick) got right to my bumper, but I actually was able to pull away from him, and I was like, wow, I wasn’t expecting that. He’d been so good all night. We’d finally gotten the car where I could run the top groove.
“So I started to settle in, and right about the time I settled in, I started getting super loose, especially in 3 and 4, and I didn’t know where that came from. Maybe it was traffic. Traffic was pretty tough out there tonight, and so — then he caught me, and I got through traffic. He had some trouble, and I pulled away, and I thought, okay, we’re good. And then the car was great, I took off, and all of a sudden got loose again.
“And so there at the end, I was just trying to stay away from traffic. I didn’t want to get closed up on anybody. I wanted to try to have a clean lap. I got through 1 and 2 pretty good, but I got over to 3 and the car just went completely sideways on me and I couldn’t get on the gas, and I thought I’d look like a bigger idiot if I spun out leading than just trying to make sure I get back to the line first. I gave up some speed there, but we won the race, so it’s all good.
“(Harvick) was strong and he was coming. He was so strong on the top side of 3 and 4, I’m not sure I could have held him off much longer.”
Gordon now heads to Charlotte for two weeks of races, first with the non-points Sprint All-Star Race next Saturday, and then the grueling and longest race of the Cup season, the Coca-Cola 600, on May 25.
He’s still in the points lead, he finally has his first win of the season, he’s returning to the track where he won his first career Cup race 20 years ago (he was celebrated by Charlotte Motor Speedway for that feat earlier in the week) and he has motivation and confidence that will go a long way in the remaining 15 pre-Chase races.
“This, to me, is more motivating than it is — it is a relief, but it’s more motivating than that, and I think it’s only going to inspire us,” Gordon said. “Listen, we won the race and we’re excited about that, but … we’ve got to continue to work and gain and push.
“All I know is that by getting this win, it just allows us to focus that much more and fine tune on what we need to do to go win more and continue to just push as hard as we can to be the best out there.”
Why, with Saturday’s win, Gordon could very easily go on a tear like he used to in his younger days, perhaps win two or three in a row.
And maybe then, finally, he’ll feel a bit more secure that he truly is in this year’s Chase – and that championship No. 5 could be a real possibility indeed.
While he’s talked about going out on top if he were to win a fifth championship, after a win like Saturday’s, and even if he does win the title this season, Gordon may wind up sticking around for another 20 years at this rate.
“All I can tell you is the kind of race cars and race team that I have this year tells me that we can get more wins,” Gordon said, if not outright predicted. “And if we can keep running like this, I want to keep driving and keep winning.”
Follow me @JerryBonkowski