Top NASCAR Stories of 2014: No. 5 — Jeff Gordon falls short of Drive For Five

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MotorSportsTalk is counting down the top 20 stories of the 2014 NASCAR season over the month of December.

Here’s what we’ve done so far:

Today we look at the fifth biggest story of the 2014 season in our estimation: the championship season that almost was for Jeff Gordon.

After 12 previous tries, it appeared that Jeff Gordon’s long-held dreams of winning a fifth Sprint Cup championship – and his first since 2001 – would finally come true in 2014.

Gordon had an outstanding season, leading the points standings most of the 26-race regular season, and then entered the Chase for the Sprint Cup as one of the favorites.

Unfortunately, Gordon would fall short of reaching his goal of winning the championship – let alone even having the opportunity to do so – by perhaps the deepest cut a driver can ever experience:

He missed out by one mere point.

Even though he finished a close second in the fall Chase race at Phoenix to winner Kevin Harvick, Gordon would find himself eliminated from the Championship Round when Ryan Newman got past Kyle Larson to reach the final round of four drivers.

And as a result, Gordon ultimately would not.

All of Gordon’s hard work – four wins, 14 top-fives, 23 top-10s, three poles, 1,083 laps led (his most in a season since 2007), 32 lead-lap finishes, an average race start of 9.0 (best since 2004) and average finish of 10.4 (best since 2009) – would ultimately count for virtually nothing.

Leading the standings for 17 of the first 26 races, and three times in the first seven Chase races, as well as his record-breaking fifth career win at the Brickyard 400 (plus wins at Kansas in the spring, Michigan in the summer and Dover in the Chase), would also count for little in the ultimate way the season played out.

source: Getty Images
Jeff Gordon won a record fifth Brickyard 400 in 2014. (Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images)

In the end, when fans or historians look back upon the 2014 season, unless they were to really dig deep for how the season played out, they’ll instead see simply that Gordon finished sixth in the final standings for the second season in a row.

If there’s one race that ultimately proved to be Gordon’s Achilles heel in 2014, it was the fall Chase race at Texas.

In the closing laps, he was challenging Kevin Harvick for the lead and swung slightly wide. Brad Keselowski saw the opening – even though it wasn’t completely wide enough to squeeze a race car through – and made contact with the left rear of Gordon’s car.

Two laps later, Gordon would spin out courtesy of the cut-down tire brought about by the contact with Keselowski.

And instead of finishing in the top-five at Texas, Gordon would end up a disappointing 29th, his worst finish in the Chase. What’s more, Gordon ended up in one of the ugliest post-race brawls of his career when he and Keselowski went at it afterward.

source: AP
Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski both emerged with fat lips after this post-race brawl at Texas in early November. (AP Photo/Matthew Bishop)

Had he finished in the top-five, or even the top-10, Gordon would likely have earned enough points to reach the championship round two races later.

But with the way Texas played out, Gordon had to literally drive the race of his life at Phoenix – and did just that.

He did everything right, was competitive, guarded his position on the track and gave Harvick everything he could – only to miss by one point.

In a way, you can draw a comparison between Gordon coming up short and Carl Edwards in the 2011 championship.

Edwards actually tied Tony Stewart for the Sprint Cup crown, but essentially lost by one point on an ensuing tiebreaker – Stewart won by virtue of five wins to just one victory for Edwards.

Now Gordon returns for a 23rd Sprint Cup season in 2015. He turns 44 in August and, even though he ultimately once again missed out on his Drive For Five, maybe the 14th try will be the one.

In addition, Gordon is now just eight wins away from 100 in his Sprint Cup career, and just 13 wins away from tying David “The Silver Fox” Pearson’s 105 career wins, which are second on NASCAR’s all-time wins list to Richard Petty’s 200 victories.

Honestly, given the misfortune and close-but-no-cigar season finishes he’s had since winning his fourth Cup crown in 2001, Gordon may very well have a better chance of hitting 100 wins first before he wins that fifth Cup title (if he ever does).

And yes, we know, Gordon would likely have had six and maybe even seven championships by now if NASCAR had not implemented the Chase format in 2004 and kept the points structure the same as it was before then.

Still, Gordon has nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about for falling short of No. 5 in 2014. He gave it his best – and that’s all any driver can do.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

March 28 in Motorsports History: Adrian Fernandez wins Motegi’s first race

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While auto racing is an international sport, oval racing remains uniquely American. 

That almost always has remained the case since the inception of the sport, but in 1998, the citizens of Japan got their first taste of American oval racing.

Having opened the previous year, Twin Ring Motegi was built by Honda in an effort to bring Indy-style racing to the Land of the Rising Sun. 

Adrian Fernandez was the first driver to win at the facility, taking the checkered flag in CART’s inaugural race after shaking off flu earlier that day.

Fernandez held off a hard-charging Al Unser Jr to win by 1.086 seconds. The victory was the second of his career and his first since Toronto in 1996.

Adrian Fernandez celebrates with Al Unser Jr and Gil de Ferran after winning the inaugural race at Motegi. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

The race was also memorable for a violent crash involving Bobby Rahal.

Running third with 15 laps remaining, Rahal’s right front suspension broke in Turn 2, causing his car to hit the outside wall and flip down the backstretch.

Luckily, Rahal walked away from the accident without a scratch.

“The car was on rails through (turns) 1 and 2, and all of a sudden it just got up into the marbles, and it was gone,” Rahal said. “Thank God we’ve got such safe cars.”

The following season, Fernadez went back-to-back and won again at Motegi. The track remained on the CART schedule until 2002.

In 2003, Honda switched their alliance to the Indy Racing Leauge, and Motegi followed suit.

The track continued to host IndyCar racing until 2011 with the final race being held on the facility’s 2.98-mile road course, as the oval sustained damage in the Tōhoku earthquake earlier that year.

Also on this date:

1976: Clay Regazzoni won the United States Grand Prix – West, Formula One’s first race on the Long Beach street circuit. The Grand Prix would become an IndyCar event following the 1983 edition of the race.

1993: Ayrton Senna won his home race, the Grand Prix of Brazil, for the second and final time of his career. The victory was also the 100th in F1 for McLaren.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter