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Gordon Has Climbed To Top Of Hendrick Fave List

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 20 2014

Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson know how to win championships. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

LOUDON, N.H. – It’s been 13 years since Jeff Gordon won the last of his four NASCAR Sprint Cup titles.

So how surprising is it that the 43-year-old driver is one of the favorites in this year’s Chase for the championship?

“Jeff is still one of the best drivers out there,’’ said Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson. “It’s no surprise to anybody who knows how hard he works and how good that (No.) 24 team is that he’s a contender.’’

Maybe the biggest surprise this year is that Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet hasn’t entered the Chase as the car to beat, especially considering he is the reigning series champion and winner of six of the last eight Cup titles.

“Last year we had a really poor summer and got off to a great start in the Chase and heated-up and went from headlines saying, ‘What’s wrong with the No. 48?’

“Here we go again; I knew it. I wish I could explain why teams are good and bad and why it’s so hard to be consistent all year long. But, last year, even though we had a tough end of the regular season, we were in position to win a lot of races. And we did win a bunch during the course of the year. We’ve had one hot spot in the middle of this year and we’ve kind of been lukewarm on the other sides. I’m hoping we get to that hot spot again.’’

Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway is only the second of the 10 races in the Chase and Johnson is hopeful that gives his team enough time to return to their winning ways. But there are several other teams that already seem to have things going their way.

“If truth be told,’’ Johnson said. “you look at the No. 4 (Kevin Harvick) and the No. 2 (Brad Keselowski) and the No. 24 (Gordon) consistently over the year, those guys have been there.

“It’s a new rules package. Believe me, we’re working our guts out to find the speed and to be that dominant car. But, truthfully, we’re not the dominant car right now. We’re a good car. We still have nine weeks to get our act together; especially the way this Chase lays out, if we continue to get the most out of our good car and have a great car at Homestead, if we’re in that position, then we can get seven (championships).’’

While 2012 champion Keselowski is coming off a victory in the Chase opener last week at Chicagoland Speedway and is the pole-winner and big favorite to complete a season sweep of the New Hampshire track on Sunday, Gordon, last week’s runner-up, is feeling pretty confident, too.

“It felt great to get the Chase started off right with a strong finish last week,’’ Gordon said. “It gives us confidence and momentum coming into New Hampshire, a very good track for us.

The powerful Hendrick team qualified all four of its drivers for the Chase, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne both looking for their first series title.

Gordon said he doesn’t know why Johnson, who finished 12th at Chicago, has had such an up and down season.

“We go off of what the No. 48 has done in the past and how they’ve been so successful,’’ he noted. “And that’s what we have right now. I’ve been on both sides of that, when things aren’t clicking and the chemistry is not there and the cars just aren’t doing what you want them to do to get the performance, or when you do have the performance, you can’t get all the other moving pieces to fall in place.

“I can’t really comment on how that has been working for them, but I just know how it has been working for us this year. And it starts with a fast race car. But it’s a lot more than that. It’s more than just a feel. Unfortunately I haven’t had this strong of a team and an opportunity for many years and it just feels good to have that. It gives me confidence in what I’m doing because they believe in me … and I believe in them. That’s what allows you to go to the next race and perform well.”

Meanwhile, Johnson is hoping to start rebuilding that kind of confidence, especially with the new Chase format.

This year, the Chase began with 16 drivers. After the first three races, the field will be cut to 12 drivers. Four more will be eliminated after six races and four more after nine races, with the top four drivers competing for the title at the series finale in Homestead, Fla.. A win in any round will automatically move that driver to the next round.

“We’re not where we want to be,’’ Johnson said. “But, again, with this format of the Chase there’s time. In some respects, it could be a little bit more forgiving for you, where the gross points total doesn’t determine the champion at the end of the year. So, we’re going to play the game that’s ahead for us and get the best we can and hopefully heat-up as this Chase wears on.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 20 2014
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