Once upon a time, 24-year-old Jeff Gordon set the NASCAR world on fire. In his third full season in the Cup Series, he won seven times, collected 23 top-10 finishes and intimidated The Intimidator himself en route to his first series title. It was a watershed moment, one that set the stage for other young, aspiring drivers to walk in Gordon’s path rather than spend 15 years “working their way up the ranks” in middling equipment before earning a primo shot.
We were reminded of that history on Sunday, as Gordon, now age 43, spent much of the Pure Michigan 400 battling with a version of his former self, 24-year-old Joey Logano. Combined, the duo led 154 of the race’s 200 laps, and staged a frantic final restart that ultimately leaned Gordon’s way. But while it was the veteran who won his third race of the year, earning the points lead while reversing historic roles, it was the upstart youngster who appeared to exit the race with a boost in confidence.
“We can win a championship,” Logano stated when asked what he could take from Sunday. “I really feel like we can do that. That is the message I want to put out there and I want to put it out there for my team, that we are strong enough to do it this year.”
It’s a confidence people have been searching for out of Logano since the much-hyped leader of NASCAR’s “next generation” rose to the Cup circuit full-time at the ripe old age of 18. People thought then his trajectory should match Gordon’s: a rocket-like launch to the top that included wins, championships and millions in endorsements by age 21 (what would have been his third full Cup season on tour). But perhaps, when looking back at the mountains of criticism this kid received, it’s apparent there is a limit to how much such a young driver can do. Take a look at where some of NASCAR’s other great drivers stood at age 24:
Dale Earnhardt Sr.: Made first Cup Series start (22nd).
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Five Cup starts, one top-10 finish.
Kevin Harvick: No Cup starts.
Jimmie Johnson: No Cup starts.
Matt Kenseth: No Cup starts.
Brad Keselowski: Made first two Cup Series starts (19th, 23rd).
Kurt Busch: Eight Cup wins, best finish of third in points.
Kyle Busch: Sixteen Cup wins, best finish of fifth in points.
As you can see, it takes a rare breed to cross the threshold of not just competing at the Cup level, but actually challenging for a championship. Gordon, at age 24, was mature enough to turn the tables, but no one since has come close to winning the title that young as he did in ‘95. Will the patience for Logano, who’s lasted six years and two different teams, have a chance of paying off?
NASCAR, whose evolution has been slowed significantly over the past several years, could use this simple case of history repeating itself. But the fact Logano’s finally coming close, armed with the confidence to put him over the top and become a new face carrying the sport, is one small beacon of hope in what’s been a troubling, tragic last few weeks.
“Through the Gears” after Michigan we go …
FIRST GEAR: Hendrick horsepower takes the cake
Of course, for Logano to get over the hump there’s a formidable obstacle for the Penske Racing driver: Hendrick Motorsports. And not just Gordon, who was agitated but ultimately able to overcome some gamesmanship on the final series of restarts. There’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. sitting second in points and versatile on all tracks this season, his final with crew chief Steve Letarte. Add in defending series champ Jimmie Johnson, whose top-10 finish Sunday was the perfect antidote for a summer slump and you’ve got a trio whose overall strength this season is hard to top.
“Frustration,” said Denny Hamlin when asked about battling HMS this season. “I’m trying to fight — do everything I can — to keep up with Hendrick engines.”
“Do I think the Hendrick Chevys are the best motors out there right now?” third-place Logano was asked in the midst of his “championship push.” “Yes, I do.”
That’s important, especially in an upcoming Chase where intermediates make up five of the 10 postseason tracks. With rule restrictions on those ovals keeping crew chiefs from radical changes, the best way to get better handling with NASCAR’s 2014 rules package is simple: find more speed down the straightaways. It leads to a greater ability to use the draft to your advantage, now active at places like Michigan, Charlotte and Texas because of track-record speeds.
Add in the ability for HMS to promote teamwork across the board, sharing information so that all teams can be successful, and it’s easy to see why Earnhardt, Gordon and Johnson have won eight of the last 13 Cup races. By comparison, no other driver/organization has won more than two (Brad Keselowski/Penske).
One car, Kasey Kahne, continues to be a step behind the curve at HMS and in danger of missing the Chase and perhaps putting Kahne’s 2015 employment in peril. But even that could lead to a bonus for the three remaining HMS drivers, as the No. 5 turning into a test vehicle during the Chase and utilizing experimental setups could help the collective.
Logano, Keselowski and Kevin Harvick could each make a case to be joining the Hendrick cars inside that season finale Final Four. But don’t be surprised if it’s just one fighting the HMS trio that’s been head and shoulders above the competition all year.
SECOND GEAR: A new reality at Stewart-Haas Racing
While HMS exited Michigan on a high, Stewart-Haas Racing left with a different goal in mind: survival. Although Harvick ran second, the high watermark for the organization’s four cars, the weekend was marked by frustration and constant media questions surrounding the future of the team and its leader, Tony Stewart, who’s accident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park remains under investigation.
“I’ve known Tony Stewart for a long time,” Harvick said Sunday. “I still don't believe that he even knew that he ran into that car. I know for sure that Tony Stewart is not going to run over somebody that’s on a racetrack. I don’t think there's anybody in this garage that would. It would be hard to find somebody in the racing world that could point that car, just run somebody over. You have just a lot of unknowledgeable people reporting on a situation that know absolutely nothing about racing. It’s just really unfortunate, the perception that has been given to him.”
Yet, while that’s the mantra inside SHR – pull together amidst unfair chaos that can’t be controlled – there remains a high degree of uncertainty. There’s no guarantee at all criminal charges won’t be pressed against Stewart with the investigation’s conclusion not expected for at least another week. And it’s difficult, if not impossible, to see Stewart at a racetrack or inside a car until the results are made public.
That leaves the shadow of what happened over everyone at the track, making quality performance that much more difficult without their leader. Jeff Burton performed admirably in Stewart’s place, climbing inside the top 15 but ultimately sent behind the wall with electrical problems. Danica Patrick, whose weekend started well in practice, made contact with her substitute teammate causing the race’s big multi-car wreck on Lap 25 that took out Matt Kenseth, Trevor Bayne, Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett and a host of others. Kurt Busch, whose car was a top-5 contender, went over the edge in the closing laps, wrecking hard into the outside wall.
That’s three of four cars in need of a little TLC this week — the type of strong direction Stewart provides as co-owner. You can only pull so many others together for so long before that type of absence starts to wear.
THIRD GEAR: Larson’s lost opportunity?
One of the big stories of the summer has been rookie Kyle Larson pushing to make the Chase with a series of strong performances. But bad luck has dogged that effort, including a scary wreck at Michigan Sunday where a blown right-front tire may have ruined his chances. It’s the fourth major wreck for Larson this year (his third DNF) and it came with a last-place finish that could be the difference between making the Chase and missing it.
“I thought we had a car capable of winning the race for sure,” he said, despite early pit road contact with Earnhardt Jr. that messed up the toe of his No. 42 Chevy. “Those right-front’s blowing do not feel good.”
The wreck leaves Larson 24 points behind Greg Biffle with three races remaining to try and make the Chase on points. Of course, the rookie could also win his way in, which could make upcoming races at Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond that much more fun. Keep in mind Larson was fast at Richmond in the spring, winning the pole only to get spun on the first turn of the first lap by Clint Bowyer.
But if not, any bid for the postseason has now become a bit of a longshot. That’s a shame for a first-year driver that has clearly driven strong enough to deserve one.
FOURTH GEAR: Roush Fenway still flailing
Roush Fenway Racing entered Michigan with high hopes and looking for a rebound after a disastrous June on what historically has been one of its best tracks. A test a few weeks ago, along with Mark Martin’s return as driver consultant, instilled confidence that the three-car outfit had things pointed in the right direction. But Sunday? Even 10th-place Biffle, the highest running of the RFR outfit, was clearly a step behind from the drop of the green. Penske Racing’s two cars of Logano and Keselowski ran circles around Ford’s former top outfit, putting their rivals in place as second-class citizens. Heck, Keselowski ran eighth, two spots ahead of RFR despite slamming the outside wall with a blown tire late in the race.
“We were so loose, I just couldn’t drive it,” said Carl Edwards, who endured two pit road penalties en route to a disappointing 23rd. “We were just too loose today to be able to do anything.”
It’s been a rough month, with an expected Edwards announcement of his departure to Joe Gibbs Racing on Tuesday while Biffle lost sponsor 3M for 2015 (the team claims it has a replacement to be announced in the next few weeks). Then Friday, the Wood Brothers announced it was shifting its partnership to Penske for 2015, putting rookie Ryan Blaney in the No. 21 for a limited schedule while getting chassis built by Roush’s rival. It’s another small but subtle sign the balance of power has shifted in Blue Oval land for good.
Roush needs to find a way to turn the tables.
It was another rough day for Joe Gibbs Racing, as Kenseth got caught up in the Danica incident and Kyle Busch wrecked himself within the first five laps. “Struggling for speed,” was how Hamlin put it, having to scratch and claw his way into the top 10. After 12 wins in 36 races last year, JGR has just two through 23 races this year. … NASCAR’s new rule instituting drivers should stay in their cars didn’t change the racing, although it rarely had to be used on Sunday. No one criticized Larson for exiting his vehicle early with the car on fire and the wide, multi-groove Michigan track leaving him far away from potential danger. The real test will come at the rough-and-tumble Bristol short track Saturday night. … With a pole speed of 206.558 mph, it’ll be interesting to see what NASCAR does at Michigan going forward. Ryan Truex had a hard hit in practice, one that put him out with a concussion and several hard wrecks gave the garage area pause. You‘ve got to believe Monday’s Michigan test, used for 2015 rule changes, will be designed to slow the cars down dramatically.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.