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

F1 tests: Mercedes innovates with wheel adjustment system

Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images
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MONTMELÓ, Spain — Veteran Kimi Raikkonen set the fastest time on the second day of Formula One preseason testing on Thursday, but Mercedes still garnered more attention by introducing an innovative wheel adjustment system.

On-board footage showed defending champion Lewis Hamilton pulling the steering wheel back and forth on the front straight to apparently change the angle of the front wheels on his Mercedes car.

The team stayed tight-lipped about the car’s new feature but guaranteed it was “safe” and “legal.”

“I probably won’t shed a great deal more light than what you saw on the TV but yeah we have a system in the car, it’s a novel idea,” team technical director James Allison told F1 TV. ”We’ve got a name for it, it’s called DAS, if you’re interested, and it just introduces an extra dimension for the steering, for the driver, which we hope will be useful during the year. But precisely how we use it and why we use it, that’s something we will keep to ourselves.”

Allison said governing body FIA knew in advance that the team was introducing the new system.

“It’s something we’ve been talking to them (about) for some time,” he said. “The rules are pretty clear about what’s permitted on steering systems and we’re pretty confident that it matches those requirements. I’m pleased we got it on the car, it seems to be useful, and we’ll see over the coming days how it benefits us.”

Hamilton said he was still trying to get used to the system, but praised the team for coming up with the innovation.

“I’ve only had one morning on (it, so) I don’t really have a lot to talk about with it. We’re trying to get on top of it, understand it, but safety-wise no problem today and the FIA are OK with the project.

“For me it’s really encouraging to see that my team is continuing to innovate and stay ahead of the game, and I think that’s down to the great minds in the team and so hopefully that’ll work to our benefit.”

Hamilton led the time charts on Wednesday but was only ninth-fastest on Thursday.

MORE: Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas fastest in Day 1 of F1 practice
MORE: Sergio Perez fastest early on Day 2 of F1 Practice

The 40-year-old Raikkonen, who has a chance this season to break the record for most race starts in F1, was fastest with a time of 1 minute, 17.091 seconds in his Alfa Romea. He was 0.2 seconds quicker than Sergio Pérez with Racing Point. Daniel Ricciardo of Renault was third.

Raikkonen caused a red flag near the end of the afternoon session when his car stopped on the track with an apparent mechanical issue. The Finnish driver had spun earlier in the session, as did Valtteri Bottas of Mercedes, Romain Grosjean of Haas and Pierre Gasly of Alpha Tauri, formerly known as Toro Rosso.

Grosjean had the most laps among the 13 drivers who went to the track on Thursday, with 158.

Bottas was the slowest driver of the day, while Sebastian Vettel was sixth-fastest with Ferrari.

Pérez had set the quickest time in the morning session. The Mexican driver had been third fastest on Wednesday, behind Hamilton and Bottas.

Drivers will be back on the track on Friday to close out the first week of testing. Teams will have another three days to test next week.

Preseason testing has been reduced from eight to six days to help compensate for the record 22 races on the calendar, including a new Vietnam Grand Prix and the return of the Dutch GP. Midseason testing also has been eliminated.

The season opens on March 15 at the Australian GP.

The Barcelona-Catalunya track will host the Spanish GP on May 10.