With three races remaining in the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup, four-time champ Jeff Gordon has become a torch bearer for quite a few people:
First, with teammates Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne all eliminated from the Chase, Gordon is Hendrick Motorsports’ lone hope for a seventh Cup championship in the last nine seasons.
Second, after 13 years of chasing that elusive fifth Cup crown, Gordon is bound and determined to finally realize his “Drive For Five” effort this year, an effort that has been ongoing now for the last 13 seasons since his last title in 2001.
Third, for many of NASCAR’s long-time fans, Gordon is essentially the last link to the old-school racing of NASCAR in the early-to-mid 1990s, when he won three championships in four seasons.
Many fans who still recall Gordon’s infamous battles with the likes of the late Dale Earnhardt, Ricky Rudd, Terry and Bobby Labonte and others are likely pulling for Gordon to show some of today’s young whipper-snappers that old-timers can still get it done.
Perhaps more than any other driver since the late Earnhardt finished second to Bobby Labonte in 2000, Gordon knows that to many fans this season, he’s a sentimental favorite to win the championship.
“Maybe sentimental certainly to the No. 24 fans, I know we are,” Gordon said Friday at TMS. I think a lot of people would look at it as, ‘Oh, he is 43 (years old) and he hasn’t won a championship since 2001’.
“It is all about how you feel about what you are bringing to the track every weekend, and I feel really good about that. I think people have recognized how competitive our team has been this year. I think those things make us one of the favorites.”
Gordon is not only atop the Sprint Cup standings heading into Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, he’ll also start the race from the front row, alongside pole-sitter Matt Kenseth.
With two races remaining in the Eliminator Round, which will set up the final four drivers to compete in the winner-take-all season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in two weeks, Gordon’s confidence is higher than it’s been in a long time.
“It is,” Gordon admitted. “And it’s just been this team and the cars that I’ve been driving this year that have helped build that. We’ve been really strong and we started early on in the season running well. And we’ve just been able to fine-tune on that as the year has gone on. That builds chemistry and communication.
“You back that up with good performances and wins and getting in the position that we’re in now and yeah, you’re confidence is high. And mine is. It’s awesome. It feels good to be feeling this good in this position at this stage of the season.”
But Gordon is also a realist. He knows that one false move, one significant mistake – or someone else’s mistake – could knock him off from the top of the Chase mountain Sunday or in next Sunday’s final race of the Eliminator Round in Phoenix.
That’s why Gordon, who has been a symbol of confidence and consistency this season, won’t settle for anything less than a win Sunday or next week, thus assuring he’ll be in the championship-deciding race at Homestead.
“To me, our focus is about going out there and winning the race,” Gordon said. “We’re not really thinking about anything else other than doing that.”
Gordon came close to winning last week at Martinsville, but couldn’t quite catch Hendrick Motorsports teammate and race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., leaving Gordon to settle for a runner-up finish.
“Last week was a good performance,” Gordon said. “Obviously we would be very comfortable right now if we’d gotten that win, but we didn’t.
“And so now, it’s all about coming here and executing and doing what we’ve been doing all year long which is approaching each race working on the details and trying to get the job done. Whether that’s a 5th or that’s a 1st or whatever we end up with out of here, we’ve got to come out of here with a solid finish.
“Whether we win or not, there is definitely added pressure than what we’ve seen in the past. But I think if we just execute and do our jobs the way we are capable of, then that will take a lot of the pressure off.”
In an ironic twist, Gordon, who has The Drive to End Hunger as one of his major sponsors, is hungry for his fifth championship, and the first since 2001 – 13 long seasons ago.
“I’m extremely hungry,” Gordon said. “What I’m hungry the most about is just knowing that I’ve got a great car and a great team that’s capable of winning this championship.
“And being in the position we’re in, and knowing that Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) had never a championship. He came close with Mark Martin. And how hard he works and how good this team is.
“Not winning a championship since 2001 and never under this format, all those things are just motivation. But the primary motivation is just know that we’re good enough to do it and having that confidence to go out there and execute.”
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