A week ago, Jeff Gordon was being widely trumpeted as a legitimate contender for the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title. Today, the Hendrick Motorsports driver isn’t even in the discussion. How quickly one week – and, more specifically, one race – can change everything.
After jumping to third in the standings and pulling within 27 points of the series lead with a win at Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 27, Gordon tumbled to sixth following a tire failure and 38th-place finish in last Sunday’s AAA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. The four-time Sprint Cup Series champion now sits 69 points behind first-place teammate Jimmie Johnson entering this Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, host to the penultimate race of the 2013 season.
But as different as Gordon’s championship outlook is now versus pre-Texas, the veteran driver vows that his approach won’t really change.
“Our primary goal always stays the same: That’s that you go to the race to win the pole, win the race, accumulate the most points. It doesn’t change your thought process throughout the week, how you’re going to execute as you get to that next race,” Gordon said.
“A lot of these races are planned out weeks in advance. Some of it comes from testing, simulation, building the cars. Maybe it’s a new car. All these things lead up to a race. That doesn’t really change. It’s really what are we capable of accomplishing if we do our absolute best.”
For a second consecutive year, Gordon turned a topsy-turvy regular season into a last-minute Chase berth – this one coming via a ruling that added him to the Chase six days after the playoff field was initially set. Gordon began the Chase as the 13th and last seed when NASCAR took the unprecedented step of adding a 13th driver after a series of controversial events in the regular-season finale at Richmond left him on the outside looking in.
After steadily climbing the Chase standings and picking up his first win of the season at Martinsville, Gordon appeared poised to make his first serious run at a title since 2007, when he finished runner-up in the points to Johnson.
However, the combination of Johnson’s Texas victory and a strong showing from fellow championship contender Matt Kenseth, coupled with Gordon’s Texas troubles, knocked Gordon out of the title picture almost as quickly as he had entered it.
Now, with only Phoenix and the next weekend’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway left on the schedule, Gordon realistically won’t climb any higher than third in the standings, and fourth-place is a more realistic goal.
“It was certainly disappointing to have the race we just had in Texas,” said Gordon, who as of Tuesday afternoon still didn’t know what triggered the tire issue. “So, it doesn’t change really our approach, how we go through these next two weeks. It just takes us back, you know, in points. It certainly kind of takes that momentum away that we had.
“But the confidence is still high. The car was fantastic again this past weekend. I felt like we were going to have a great weekend. We take that confidence in the cars that we’ve been bringing to the racetrack into Phoenix this weekend, on to Homestead. We’ll finish out the season the best we can and hopefully move up in points again.”
Gordon is the defending race winner at Homestead where, remarkably, no Hendrick Motorsports driver had been to Victory Lane prior to his 2012 breakthrough.
A recent test at Homestead convinced Gordon that he and his No. 24 team stand a good chance of making it two consecutive wins at the 1.5-mile track in South Florida.
“I think our best track in the Chase is Homestead,” he said. “I really just wanted to get to Homestead with a shot, you know, with a mathematical shot at this championship, because I think we could put some pressure on them, have a shot at winning that race.
“Now, yeah, it’s, ‘OK, how high up in points can we get?’ You’re still dealing with the same thing. It’s just one is the championship and the other one is maybe a third or fourth in points. That will all be reevaluated after we go through this next weekend’s race in Phoenix.”
And when the season is over, Gordon and his Alan Gustafson-led team will evaluate what went right – and, more importantly, what went wrong – in 2013, with a focus on making another run at Gordon’s long-awaited fifth championship next year.
“The majority of the races that we’ve run this year, I don’t think we’ve even come close to living up to our full potential,” said Gordon, whose last title came in 2001. “Maybe, Pocono (August) stands out. That’s a race I feel like second and almost winning was a great accomplishment for us at a crucial time in the season.
“But we had a disappointing season on so many levels, that to just be able to step it up to this next level during the Chase has been probably the best motivating thing we could have. … I’m hoping that next year we can get it a little sooner in the season so we don’t have to go through all the drama we had to go through this year and last year.”