Gordon Taking Different Approach This Season
By Mike Harris | Senior Writer
Jeff Gordon has a lot to be proud of. Four NASCAR Sprint Cup championships and 82 race wins in a career that began nearly two decades ago are nothing to sneeze at.
But Gordon is 38 years old now, and he’s been overshadowed in recent years by teammate Jimmie Johnson, who often seems to be there to pick up the victory or the championship when Gordon falters – even a bit.
Gordon’s last championship came in 2001, although he has stayed in the hunt most of the years since then. Gordon finished second (to Johnson) as recently as 2007, and he was a solid third behind Johnson and another Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Mark Martin, last year.
Some folks might be thinking about writing him off because Gordon has only won once in his last 86 races. That victory came a year ago at Texas Motor Speedway, where Gordon finished second on Sunday to Kyle Busch, who was 7 years old when Gordon made his Cup debut at the end of the 1992 season.
But, let’s not start saving for a retirement gift quite yet. Seems the old (Wonder) boy still has some of the gifts that made him the biggest star in the sport during the ’90s and into the early part of the new century.
During the long stretch since he won six times in 2007, Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet has a whopping 20 finishes of third or better. That includes the Texas win, 12 runner-up finishes and seven third-place runs.
Two of those second-place finishes have come in the last four races, and Gordon has also managed a pair of thirds in the first 10 races of 2010. But the frustrating thing for Gordon is that each of those could easily have been wins as Gordon has seemingly lost the ability to close the deal.
On Sunday, it was Busch who passed Gordon on a late restart – a similar fate that Gordon has suffered several times this season on his way to sixth place in the point standings.
No one but Gordon, and maybe his wife, know how frustrated he has been over the lack of the wins and the way he has lost a number of races in the past year. But the longtime NASCAR star rarely shares his inner feelings – although he has let off some steam over several recent on-track run-ins with Johnson, his longtime friend.
“I’ve been doing this long enough to know they don’t give out trophies for leading any lap other than the last one,’’ Gordon said Sunday. “You know, we’re a team that’s made huge strides, in my opinion, from last year. Even though we finished third in the points last year, I don’t feel we were near as competitive as we are right now. ‘’
Gordon said he is particularly excited about his team this year because their car has led laps _ a lot of laps – at a variety of tracks, long and short, this season.
“I think our team is really on top of our game,’’ he said. “It’s a little disappointing we haven’t won some races yet. If we keep doing this, those will come. We’ve got to keep putting ourselves in position. ‘’
Part of the overall problem for Gordon is that the Chase format, with a 26-race regular season and a 10-race playoff, has not been kind to him.
Twice since the format began in 2004, Gordon has held a lead after the regular season – including a 312-point bulge over Tony Stewart in 2007 – only to lose out in the postseason after the points are reset for the Chase.
That, plus watching Johnson find ways to excel in the Chase on the way to a record four straight championships, has Gordon and his team rethinking their strategy.
“I think because the Chase format, you know, we’re approaching this season different than we ever have before,’’ Gordon said. “Last year, we came out, we were consistent, we were running OK (and) we won a race at Texas. I didn’t think we were near dominant enough, leading enough laps, or diverse enough to run good at a lot of different types of tracks to compete for the championship.
“I feel like that’s the difference for us this year. Other than the win column, I feel like we’re dominating races at times. We’re leading laps pretty much everywhere we go. We’re running up front. We’re putting ourselves (in position) to win late in races. Our pit crew is strong. Everything is going good, other than getting the win. I’m extremely happy with the way things are going. ‘’
And, sometimes, it only takes one win to get a driver back in the habit.
Late in his career, Dale Earnhardt failed to win a race from early in the 1996 season until he finally broke through for a victory in the season-opening Daytona 500 in 1998, a winless string of 59 races. The Intimidator wound up winning five more times before his tragic death in the 2001 Daytona 500.
“I think everybody on the 24 believes we can still win races, and it’s going to happen before too long,’’ Gordon said. “We’re just running too good not to put up some wins.’’
– Mike Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgOne Comment