Twenty years. That’s how long it’s been, on May 29, since Jeff Gordon won his first NASCAR Cup Series race at the ripe old age of 22. One of the first to do so well, so young, Gordon encapsulated the perfect mix of talent, speed, sponsorship and confidence cloaked in invincibility. Four titles in a seven-year span had many pegging him as the man to knock off Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt atop the Cup championship ladder.
My, how quickly time flies — and people forget. Gordon, now at the veteran age 42, was arguably listed fourth best within his own organization, Hendrick Motorsports, at the start of the season. It’s a freight train of multi-million dollar success, one he helped build only to cede victories and championships to hand-picked teammate Jimmie Johnson. In the place of records, of which Gordon has many, is a broken record of retirement talk which was heightened this offseason when young Chase Elliott was bumped to the Nationwide Series full-time under a Hendrick partnership. Long-term contracts for teammates Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne made Elliott’s long-term road fairly clear. Gordon, for his part, didn’t help matters by claiming one more miracle championship would have him seriously consider hanging it up. The No. 24 team, after needing a special Brian France intervention to make the Chase last fall, seemed a group in transition rather then one ready to trounce the field.
But living legends — armed with an energy reserve one can never estimate — who’ve risen to the top in awe-inspiring fashion can never be truly doubted. Eleven races into 2014, and after Sunday’s win at Kansas, Gordon not only enjoys a 15-point lead atop the Cup standings but an all-important early victory that virtually locks him in the Chase. The No. 24 team is tied for the series lead in top-10 finishes (8) and lead-lap results (10 of 11). But perhaps the most important number is an average result of 4.0 on 1.5-mile ovals — tracks which comprise half of the 10-race postseason and where raw green-flag speed, not late-race restarts (long Gordon’s Achilles’ heel) often rule the day.
With Johnson still seeking an early playoff bid of his own, it’s Gordon’s chance to rekindle lost magic at Hendrick. There’s now a new generation of NASCAR fans, a younger crowd that doesn’t even remember how dominant Gordon once was; that last title (2001) is over a dozen years in the rearview mirror, after all. Eighty-nine career wins may be nice on the stat sheet — including a modern-era record 13 in 1998 — but in a way, Gordon’s renaissance now is making him prove that track record all over again.
That’s how it goes in sports, where age creeps in and makes all superstars human. A man who once defined the pinnacle and who claims he’d like to retire there now has to spend the rest of the season bending over backwards to convince us it’s still possible. Reaching Victory Lane wasn’t a be-all, end-all for that … but it’s a start. And most importantly, for a man who was pained by a mulligan to make the Chase, the father of two has dropped that frustration for a far more enticing word:
“Through the Gears” post-Kansas we go …
FIRST GEAR: Harvick’s loss is Gordon’s gain.
Gordon, after knocking on the door all year, earned the Kansas victory through a stroke of racing luck. During the last set of green-flag stops, Kevin Harvick ran out of gas heading to pit road and stared at his fuel gauge instead of the tachometer. Slowly creeping to his stall, the lost time was just enough to throw the No. 24 out in front and give Gordon the clean air needed to hold off all challengers.
“It came down to track position,” said Harvick, who led a race-high 119 of 267 laps. “Those guys executed a little bit better than I did.”
No one will accuse the No. 4 team of hanging back, even though Gordon’s team has a strong technical alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing. Harvick pulled some banzai moves late to run down the No. 24, creeping within a few car lengths, but ultimately came up short on a third victory in 2014. Still, the speed shown by this team on 1.5-mile ovals has to be confidence-building going forward. Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers seem to have the most pure speed of anyone in the garage right now.
And as for Gordon? He’ll take that “gift” after coming so close so many times during the first 10 races this season leading up to Sunday.
“That first win is so crucial,” Gordon said. “Once you get that, just being able to roll the dice and be more aggressive … it only leads you to the ability to take risks to get the next win.”
Gordon, after so many years of close Chase shaves, can exhale. And with the track record he has don’t be surprised if the No. 24 team suddenly snags two, three, maybe even four more trophies before September.
SECOND GEAR: Kansas? More like “Krashfest.”
The Gordon-Harvick battle, while entertaining, was one of the few highlights in a race that was one of the worst NASCAR’s put forth this season. A repaved Kansas track, despite a new single-zone tire compound, still didn’t mesh well with the aerodynamics of the sport’s reconfigured Cup cars. Speeds of over 205 miles an hour entering the corner led to drivers living on the edge in a race where passing was difficult, if not impossible, and cars seemed stuck in place after green-flag restarts.
Take Harvick, by far the dominant car through the early portion of the event, as an example: 20 laps in and he was 10 seconds ahead of fifth place and nearly lapped half the field before the first caution. But after getting caught on pit road when the caution waved during a set of green-flag stops, the No. 4 car was kicked back in the pack. Dirty air and rough traffic doomed Harvick from that point on; it took him nearly 150 laps to make it back towards the front.
“I think after the last race we saw here,” said Harvick, referring to a record-setting 15 cautions in the fall, “Everybody kind of knew it was going to be hard to pass.”
Rough conditions led to rougher racing, a lot of running in place interspersed with drivers simply losing control of their cars. Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer were among veterans spinning out on their own, while a vicious multi-car accident tore Justin Allgaier’s and David Gilliland’s cars to shreds. Yet another ugly wreck saw Jamie McMurray flatten his McDonald’s car after seemingly cutting down a tire.
The crashes kept the racing bunched up closer than it could have been; otherwise, under the right circumstances, Harvick would not only have won but potentially lapped all but the top-5 cars in the field. It was a return to “old school” NASCAR, one that brought about the ride height rule changes in the first place and raised questions as to why tracks ever choose to repave these days.
How bad did it get at Kansas? The backstretch lights went out, darkening the TV shots for viewers and the cherry on top of a racetrack that simply still has a looooong way to go.
THIRD GEAR: Danica’s career night.
The big story transcending NASCAR from this race (albeit just a little) is Patrick’s best career finish, a seventh-place run. At one point, she ran inside the top 5 while mixing it up with drivers that usually fight to lap her.
“Honestly, the most rewarding part of my night was when I drove around the outside of the No. 48 on a restart,” she said. “It’s a big deal because he is Jimmie Johnson.”
Perhaps the best part of Patrick’s weekend was the overall consistency. So often in her two years running Sprint Cup the No. 10 car will qualify well, maybe show potential in one practice or a short green-flag stint in the race. But keeping it up over three days and 400 miles? Virtually unheard of until Saturday night.
“It was really good on restarts, when it wasn’t quite right, and long runs,” Patrick said. “Hard work pays off … I think that just goes to shoe they built a great (new car). We’ve got more of these coming.”
Can she capitalize on much-needed momentum? Hard to tell. Charlotte, another 1.5-mile track, is up next which bodes well for a driver that handled Kansas. But Patrick has been a rollercoaster since Day One of jumping inside a stock car; it’s hard to anoint continued success with a track record that has just two top-10 results.
FOURTH GEAR: Missed opportunities.
Kansas, especially as a track position race, offered some “mid-level” drivers a chance to cash in based on past experiences. But all of the longshot picks, each of whom came in with some degree of momentum, never really played a factor. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who led much of this race last April, saw girlfriend Danica duel up front while his No. 17 car stumbled to 22nd. Martin Truex Jr. was one spot ahead, continuing a dismal start for the Furniture Row Racing team after running in the top 5 here last year.
Even Aric Almirola, who nearly won Kansas a year and a half ago, had to be somewhat upset after running eighth. For the Richard Petty Motorsports team, like those other two drivers, potential Chase bids come few and far between. The way the race worked out, with track position and so many cautions, the gambles could have been there for those who played their cards right. However, none of these three seemed to have the speed to get in the game.
NASCAR has to be concerned about so many cars catching fire after wrecking. Jamie McMurray’s incident was so serious Saturday night the crew on pit road had to rush to the No. 1 car and help him out. That’s two weeks after the Richmond tire fires, one of which put Reed Sorenson in danger. I thought with a more fire-friendly fuel cell, plus a water system inside triggered by temperature these new cars would be less dangerous. … Since winning Martinsville, Kurt Busch has suffered through runs of 39th, 31st, 23rd, 33rd and 29th. Three of those have been crash DNFs and the fourth involved an in-race tire problem. The fifth? Another spinout, this time at Kansas where Busch was at least able to get it together and finish. Chase bid or not, that’s the kind of frustration which leads to a legendary explosion in the near future. … Hendrick Motorsports put four cars inside the top 9, including Kansas winner Gordon. That’s the second time it’s happened this year, joining Las Vegas in March. The common theme? They’re both 1.5-mile ovals, the “it” track in the Chase this fall. Competitors, watch out.