Jeff Gordon makes strong ‘Drive For Five’ start, also has high praise for Kyle Larson in Chase opener

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JOLIET, Ill. – In the first race of the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup, Jeff Gordon took the first step in his “Drive For Five” – and put his best foot forward.

Gordon, who has been seeking his fifth Sprint Cup championship for the last 13 seasons, started the Chase for the Sprint Cup with a strong statement, finishing second to race winner Brad Keselowski.

“We had a pretty solid day,” Gordon said. “We started eighth, were able to drive up into the top two or three fairly early in the race. I knew we had a solid car. … That’s the way you want to get this thing started.”

Gordon leaves Chicagoland just seven points behind Keselowski, who remains the No. 1 seed with now nine races remaining in the Chase.

While he was chasing Keselowski in the closing laps, Gordon also engaged in an outstanding battle for second place with rookie driver Kyle Larson, who had been battling Kevin Harvick for the lead several laps earlier.

“Oh my gosh, I was having a pretty good time watching (Larson) and Kevin (Harvick) go at it in front of me,” Gordon said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. I thought for sure there was going to be a wreck.

“But that’s just two guys that are wheeling it. I’m really proud of Kyle Larson. Man, what a great effort, such a young talent. I really wanted to see him win that race because I like him, but I didn’t want to see those other guys win it either.”

Gordon made a very classy move immediately after the race. As soon as he emerged from his race car, he walked over to Logano to congratulate him and also offer words of encouragement to comfort the disappointment Larson was feeling for coming up short yet again of his first career Sprint Cup win.

“I just told him how proud I am of him,” Gordon said. “I think this kid is the real deal. He’s going to be a star in this series for a long time. I really wanted to see him win because I like him and I know he’s going to win a lot of races, but I also didn’t want to see those other guys win.

“I’m a big fan. I like seeing young guys out there driving like that. That’s so much fun. That’s what this sport is all about. I just wanted to let him know what a great job I thought he did.”

Larson indeed felt consolation from Gordon’s words.

“It means a lot,” Larson said. “He was just giving me some advice and said he was pretty proud of me. I’m sure there are some things I could have done differently on that restart, like he was telling me; and I’ll definitely know for next time.

“It’s nice whenever Jeff comes around or I read all the stuff he says about me.

“It’s really cool that guys I’ve looked up to since forever are now talking about me and I’m racing them and battling for wins.”

But showing the competitor he is, Larson couldn’t help second-guess himself about what happened in the closing laps, even with Gordon’s words of wisdom.

“Man, I was so close,” Larson said. “I didn’t need that caution (the last caution, involving Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) there.

“I was just cruising out front and then we got that yellow and I had to battle (Kevin) Harvick really hard then. That allowed Brad (Keselowski) to get by both of us. It really ended our shot at a win there.

“It stinks we got third. Coming up close as often as I have this year is going to make that first win feel that much more special.”

Near the end of their joint post-race interview in the Chicagoland Speedway media center, Larson paid a compliment to Gordon that, well, kind of came out the wrong way.

Still, Gordon took it good-naturedly.

“It’s just really, really cool (to have fellow drivers like Gordon compliment him),” Larson said. “Guys you look up to since, heck, Jeff has been racing the Cup Series as long as I’ve been alive.”

That brought both a smile and a quip in reply from Gordon, who is 43 years old to Larson’s 21 years.

“I needed to hear that,” Gordon said.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

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Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.