Here Comes Mr Gordon

Oh, sure, he hasn’t won in 23 races, the longest streak of his career. And, yes, his teammate – his ROOKIE teammate – seems to be in contention every week.

So, go ahead and make fun of Jeff Gordon. Crack jokes about his pending divorce. Laugh at him about not being able to win like Jimmie Johnson. Pick on him for silly mistakes at Bristol and Pocono.

But, remember, Gordon might be the guy laughing the most at the NASCAR Winston Cup Awards Banquet in New York City in December.

After rallying to finish fifth in Sunday’ Sirius Satellite Radio 400 at Michigan International Speedway, Gordon is 110 points out of the Winston Cup points lead. He’s tied with Johnson as both try to chase down Sterling Marlin.

There’s a long way to go in the 2002 season, and Gordon certainly has the credentials. He’s the defending Winston Cup champ, has won the title four times, and his team is clearly as deep and talented as any in the garage. If anyone is a favorite to win this year’s championship, wouldn’t it be Gordon?

No one is hotter than Gordon these days. Going back 11 races, he’s finished in the Top 10 eight times – running his career total to 200 in 308 races. In two of the races he didn’t finish in the Top 10, he won the pole. The third race was a surprisingly mediocre performance at the California Speedway.

The last five races have been especially impressive. He was seventh at Richmond, fifth at Charlotte, sixth at Dover, fifth at Pocono – after a half-spin on pit road – and fifth at Michigan.

The Michigan race may have proved Gordon still has what it takes to be a championship challenger. An ill-timed pit stop got him a lap down, but he made it up and came from behind after the final pit stop to charge into the Top 5.

“I’m shaking my head – I can’t believe it,” Gordon said. “We were going along and things weren’t going our way, and then all of a sudden something happens like that and we finish fifth. We were a fifth-place car, I felt like, maybe even better if cautions hadn’t fallen the way they did. We got stuck a lap down and had to fight our way back, and these guys did an excellent job just keeping me pumped up and keeping us in this thing. We got back on the lead lap. We were basically going to sit back there and finish 14th. The car just wouldn’t go forward.”

But the caution and then red flag waved, and Gordon and crew chief Robbie Loomis decided to change four tires. With three laps left, he was still outside the Top 10.

“We had no other choice (but to pit),” Gordon said. “We were the last car on the lead lap. We came in and got four tires, and that Chevy just took off. I went to the high side and went through the middle and we were four-wide, and it was pretty hairy. But it all worked out. … To be able to get up there and get Top 5, that’s awesome.”

That was like the Gordon of old: run in the pack most of the race before busting out in the closing laps. Of course, Gordon has won his share of races that way, and he’s more than ready to do that again.

When asked what he needs to improve for the second half of the season, Gordon said he’d like to lead a few more laps, qualify better – and win races.

“I’d like to start winning some races,” Gordon said. “We certainly haven’t had a horrible first half. We’re third in the points, and we’ve had Top 5 and a couple poles. I definitely think we could improve in some areas, and if we do, there’s no telling what we’ll be like the second half of the season.”

That first win could come this weekend. Gordon has an enviable record on road courses with a record seven victories. He’s won three times at Sears Point but finished third there last year. That prompted the once-dominant No. 24 team to build a new car.

“We had one car that won all those races and was so good and we were afraid to change it – afraid to do anything different,” Gordon said. “As a matter of fact, I tested that car against a new car a couple of years ago and liked it better than the new car. So, we stayed with that older car. But once we ran those races, we realized we weren’t the best car.

“We won at Watkins Glen (in 2001), but mainly because Robby (Gordon) fell out. So we built a brand new car and tested it at VIR this week. It was fast, and we’re happy with it and we’re hoping to gain something with it.”

After Sears Point comes Daytona, the unofficial start of the second half of the season and the official start of the closing 20-race stretch to the season.

Bring it on, Gordon said.

“I’m ready. Let’s do it right now,” Gordon said. “I think a lot of it is just in preparation of the team. By not having things torn up the first half of the season certainly helps. With Jimmie running as good as he has run during this first half of the season, there’s a lot that we can take out of that and apply it the second time around.”

So go ahead and snicker. Might be the last time you can.

Staff Writer Lee Montgomery can be reached at lee.montgomery@rmg3.com

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2002, Jeff Gordon

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