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Could It Be Gordon Who Dethrones Johnson?

Mark Armijo | Senior Correspondent, RacinToday.com Tuesday, March 2 2010
Jeff Gordon returned to the front at Las Vegas last Sunday. Can he stay there?  (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

Jeff Gordon returned to the front at Las Vegas last Sunday. Can he stay there? (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

Phoenix, Ariz. – That was no mirage Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. That really was Jeff Gordon riding around the slick, 1.5-mile oval as if he owned the place.

You remember Gordon, don’t you? Four NASCAR Sprint Cup championships. No. 6 on the all-time list with 82 wins.

So where’s he been?

Well, where he was Sunday was in cruise control, dominating a race with such precision it was as if someone had turned back the clock and it was the 13-win, 1998 championship season all over again, a season in which a vintage Gordon amassed an astonishing 19 top-five finishes during the final 20 races.

Although Gordon wound up third on the leader board following the checkered flag, he led 219 of 267 laps, the first time he’s led the field for that many laps since leading 313 laps in a win at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway in October 2003.

Gordon also led 168 laps while finishing runner-up at the second Martinsville race in 2007, a race some believe is the last time he’s delivered such a dominating run, and 173 laps in a fourth-place finish at the following race at Texas Motor Speedway. But Gordon said there is no comparison between the Martinsville and Las Vegas races.

“The mile and a half tracks are where championships are won because there’s quite a few of them,” Gordon said Monday during a brief pit stop in Phoenix, where he took part in a Jeff Gordon Day ceremony with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. “Having a strong team and car like that on a mile and a half to me means more than going and dominating at Martinsville.

“So in my opinion, it’s been a lot longer (between dominating races) than Martinsville.”

One thing appears certain. It appears Gordon might be ready to challenge teammate and Las Vegas winner Jimmie Johnson for NASCAR superiority.

“(Sunday) felt good,” Gordon said. “As disappointed as it was to finish third, it felt awesome to be up there. When they dropped the green flag, I was driving by guys and just pulling away.

“The 48 (Johnson) was strong. Had he gotten in front of us any time during the day, he was going to be tough as we were.  We knew he was our competition. It just came down to the final pit stop.”

Gordon’s bullish run meant a nine-position jump to No. 13 in the driver standings and only reinforced what he already believed before the season’s first lap, which is he remains optimistic a fifth title hardly is out of the question.

“I really don’t have anything out there I have to accomplish,” Gordon said. “But I really want to win a fifth championship and I’d like to do it before Jimmie Johnson.

“I’ve been optimistic all winter. I feel like (crew chief) Steve Letarte and the team really has been on top of their game and is just really going that extra mile to make us better. I’ve been trying to do the same with communicating with them, working out and doing everything I possibly can.

“So I felt really good about our team just coming into the season. I feel like we ran great at Daytona (26th) and I felt like we ran great at California (20th). Then, we backed it up with a great run and finish (Sunday), where we didn’t have the finishes to show for it in the other two races. But I still felt like our performances were there. We’re definitely building momentum for this year.”

Gordon’s beliefs are a 180-degree turnaround from last season at about this same juncture, even after finishing runner-up at Fontana in February and winning at Texas Motor Speedway in April.

“Even though we won at Texas and we were strong at California, I just  don’t feel like we’re  going to flatten out t his year,” said Gordon, who never led the most laps in a single race in 2008 and only did it one time last season. “I feel like we’ve got some extra strengths built into the team right now and that’s going to be make us stronger.

“I felt like last year we were at our peak at the beginning of the season. I feel like this year we haven’t reached our peak yet. I really feel like we have a team that can compete with them (Johnson’s team) this year and we showed it at Las Vegas.”

Did he ever.

– Mark Armijo is the long-time auto racing beat writer for the Arizona Republic and a frequent contributor to RacinToday.com

Mark Armijo | Senior Correspondent, RacinToday.com Tuesday, March 2 2010
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  • Don Reynolds says:

    I firmly believe Jeff Gordon is the best driver in racing. He has handled adversity as well as anybody could have and better than most. The handling of tough situations positively is part of what helps make a champion. Jimmie Johnson is an outstandig driver. The fact still remains Jimmie has not had the up and down trials Jeff has had. When things remain constant and in sinc it helps a great deal to remain in control. So we will have to see if maybe Jeff turned a page from alot of his misfortunes and show that after being tested so many ways he can emerge back to the top where he belongs.