Jeff Gordon: 2014 is best shot at Sprint Cup crown since his last in 2001

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JOLIET, Ill. – Ask Jeff Gordon a point-blank question and he’ll give you a point-blank response in return.

When asked the last time he felt as optimistic about his championship chances as he has heading into this season’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, Gordon didn’t hesitate.

“2001,” Gordon said emphatically.

Not surprisingly, 2001 was also the season of Gordon’s fourth and most recent Cup championship.

Since then, Gordon’s “Drive For Five” has gone on for 13 unlucky seasons where he’s fallen short of his goal.

That’s all different in 2014, though.

“I mean, 2004 and 2007 we were pretty good,” Gordon said. “I’ve had years where I’ve felt we’ve had a chance to win, but it’s been a long time since I’ve felt like we were the team to win.”

Gordon has numerous motivating factors channeling his quest for the championship.

Said Gordon, “Not winning a Sprint Cup championship under the new format, not winning a championship since 2001, making the switch over to the new team with Alan (crew chief Alan Gustafson) and the group that he’s put together and wanting to see them win races like the Brickyard 400 and be champions. They’ve been close before with Mark Martin, but there’s things we’re doing together that they’ve never done before.

“And then, the icing on the cake is having my family there. That Brickyard 400 win (in July) will go down as a highlight for me forever. Winning such a big race, getting to kiss the bricks, having them there and to experience what it was like as a family with Ingrid and the kids, it was amazing. The only thing that can top that is doing that as a champion.”

Which leads to the inevitable question posed to him by MotorSportsTalk: If he wins the championship this season, will Gordon go out on top and retire?

“Ha-ha,” Gordon laughed. “I don’t know about that, not unless I pull my back out break dancing on stage for the championship. Nobody would want to break-dance more than me if we won this thing.”

Prior to the season, there were reports that Gordon would retire if he wins the 2014 crown. He said his answer was misunderstood and he clarified the misconception with MST.

“That came from somebody asking me if I won the championship, would I consider retiring?” he said. “Heck yeah, I’d consider it. I’m having too much fun right now, though. My focus is on the championship and winning it.

“When it’s time to go, it’s time to go. But I hope that moment, when it’s time, that it hits me like a break wall and tells me. But I don’t feel like that’s going to be at the end of this season.”

Gordon acknowledges that numerous fans and media have made him a sentimental favorite to win the championship this season.

“Sentimental doesn’t mean anything to me when I’m driving the car,” he said. “It’s great to hear that when you get outside the car, the reaction, the support. That’s wonderful. But for me, it’s just all about what I do behind the wheel, do my job and do it well and have a piece of equipment that I’ve had this year that reacts to the input that I give it and a team that believes in me.”

As for how he handicaps his team’s chances in the Chase, which begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, Gordon said the expanded format – along with the three elimination rounds – actually plays in his favor.

“The third round, you’re going to have to be near-perfect,” he said. “You definitely don’t have to have 10 perfect weeks, not at all. I think the third round and Homestead, you’re going to have to be at your absolute best. The other one’s, you can slip a little hear and there if you’re strong enough to claw yourself back to a decent finish.

“It’s a different championship than what we’ve seen in previous years because of these elimination rounds. … That’s why I like this version (it helps him recover from struggles like he’s had in past Chase’s).

“Chicago’s a great track, Kansas is a great track for us, Martinsville is a great track for us. Those are the first three races of each of those three rounds. I want to win those races and then go to Homestead and try to win the championship.

“We have a lot of tracks that we can be extremely dangerous at, that we can not only win, but also have the consistency to be a strong team to get to Homestead as well. As a team, we have more than one way to get there.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Miguel Oliveira wins MotoGP Thai Grand Prix, Bagnaia closes to two points in championship

MotoGP Thai Grand Prix
Mirco Lazzari / Getty Images
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Miguel Oliveira mastered mixed conditions on the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand to win the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix. Oliveira showed the adaptability as he navigated a race that began in wet conditions and turned dry over the course of the race. Oliveira won the Indonesian GP in similar conditions.

“It was a long race, but I can’t complain,” Oliveira said on CNBC. “Every time we get to ride in the wet, I’m always super-fast. When it started raining, I had flashbacks of Indonesia. I tried to keep my feet on the ground, make a good start and not make mistakes and carry the bike to the end.”

All eyes were on the championship, however. Francesco Bagnaia got a great start to slot into second in Turn 1.

Meanwhile Fabio Quartararo had a disastrous first lap. He lost five positions in the first couple of turns and then rode over the rumble strips and fell back to 17th. At the end of the first lap, Bagnaia had the points’ lead by two. A win would have added to the gain and for a moment, it appeared Bagnaia might assume the lead.

Early leader Marco Bezzecchi was penalized for exceeding track limits, but before that happened, Jack Miller got around Bagnaia and pushed him back to third. Oliveira was not far behind.

After throwing away ninth-place and seven points on the last lap of the Japanese GP last week, Bagnaia did not allow the competition to press him into a mistake. He fell back as far as fourth before retaking the final position on the podium.

“It’s like a win for me, this podium,” Bagnaia. “My first podium in the wet and then there was a mix of conditions, so I’m very happy. I want to thank Jack Miller. Before the race, he gave me a motivational chat.”

Miller led the first half of the Thai Grand Prix before giving up the top spot to Oliveira and then held on to finish second. Coupled with his Japanese GP win, Miller is now fully in the MotoGP championship battle with a 40-point deficit, but he will need a string of results like Bagnaia has put together in recent weeks – and he needs Bagnaia to lose momentum.

Miller’s home Grand Prix in Australia is next up on the calendar in two weeks.

Bagnaia entered the race 18 points behind Quartararo after he failed to score any in Japan. The balance of power has rapidly shifted, however, with Quartararo now failing to earn points in two of the last three rounds. Bagnaia won four consecutive races and finished second in the five races leading up to Japan. His third-place finish in Thailand is now his sixth MotoGP podium in the last seven rounds.

Aleix Espargaro entered the race third in the standings with a 25-point deficit to Quartararo, but was able to close the gap by only five after getting hit with a long-lap penalty for aggressive riding when he pushed Darryn Binder off course during a pass for position. Espargaro finished 11th.

Rain mixed up the Moto2 running order in the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix as well. Starting on a wet track, Somkiat Chantra led the opening lap in his home Grand Prix. He could not hold onto it and crashed one circuit later, but still gave his countrymen a moment of pride by winning the pole.

Half points were awarded as the race went only eight laps before Tony Arbolino crossed under the checkers first with Filip Salac and Aron Canet rounding out the podium.

American Joe Roberts earned another top-10 in eighth with Sean Dylan Kelly finishing just outside the top 10 in 11th.