Thinking like a champion: That's what Jeff Gordon is doing in 2014
Jeff Gordon and his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team are laser-locked on one thing and that's becoming the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup champions.
Jeff Gordon and the No. 24 team celebrate their victory in last Sunday's Pure Michigan 400.
Will Schneekloth / Getty Images
By Darrell Waltrip
It's been real interesting to me these last few weeks to see the desire and determination of some of these drivers. Look at AJ Allmendinger two weeks ago at Watkins Glen. He wasn't going to be denied. He knew he was up against arguably the best road-course driver in our sport in Marcos Ambrose, yet AJ wanted that win so bad that he went up there and took it.
You can go back to the Brickyard 400 and Jeff Gordon was on a mission to win that race. I always tell you I love irony, so I really enjoyed the fact that it was a restart at the Brickyard with 17 laps to go that won Jeff that race, and here we were again Sunday with a restart with 17 laps to go that won Jeff the race at Michigan.
Look at the turnaround in Brad Keselowski this year. He won the championship in 2012, yet stumbles in 2013 and doesn't even make the Chase or get the chance to defend his title.
Yet when 2014 started, we saw a different Brad. He came out here thinking like a champion. He had something to prove. He had honor to reclaim, and he's doing that in spades so far.
That's why I think Jeff Gordon could be the greatest driver in NASCAR history. See, there are great drivers some of the time. There are even greater drivers who enjoy a whole era in the sport where they simply dominate. I was one of those blessed to have that era in NASCAR. One thing that makes Jeff Gordon unique in our sport is the continued success in the longevity of his career. The numbers that he has put up and continues to put up some 22 years after his very first NASCAR Cup race in November at Atlanta are nothing short of remarkable.
I think Jeff has gotten himself back to the point of thinking like a champion. Remember, he had gotten somewhat stuck in a slump. He wasn't winning all that much. He was stuck at four championships. His back was giving him problems. He was hinting about retirement. Plus, let's be honest, his teammate Jimmie Johnson was reeling off six championships himself.
It was that slump and what Jimmie was accomplishing that probably led me to overlook him in the conversation about who was possibly the greatest driver of our sport. When I hear a driver start talking about retirement, well, that usually means the fire has gone out and retirement is just around the corner.
I think Jeff is showing me and everyone that the fire in his belly to be a champion is burning brighter than ever. I just think when you combine the resources he and the team have at Hendrick Motorsports with a driver who has his confidence back and the new rules package for 2014, plus all the steam under those Hendrick hoods, well, that's a winning combination.
I just see a difference in Jeff this year. He seems to be thinking like a champion again finally. That's what makes Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus so great. They always think like champions. They are so methodical, so prepared, so determined and, yes, so confident that they are hard to keep down. Remember earlier this season when all the talk was, "When is Jimmie ever going to win in 2014?" Then May came around and Jimmie caught fire and all that talk disappeared.
That's what I am seeing from Jeff, his crew chief Alan Gustafson and that entire No. 24 team. They aren't thinking about Jeff retiring. They are thinking and laser-locked on one thing and that's becoming the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup champions. I think another sign of the belief folks have in Jeff's resurgence was the surprise announcement that long-time Roush Fenway sponsor 3M is joining the No. 24 car starting in 2015 with a new three-year deal. That alone speaks volumes.
Look at what he did last weekend. The man qualified on the pole at Michigan Speedway at over 206 mph -- in a stock car, no less. Well, that is simply breath-taking. That's 206 mph AVERAGE speed around a 2-mile racetrack that really doesn't have a lot of banking. That's simply amazing. It takes focus, skill, confidence and, yes, courage in my book.
One of the things I've always loved about our sport is that there is no window of time where you can race and then have to retire. I drove 29 years before I retired. Jeff is still young. Goodness, he's only 43 years old. If he just wanted to drive until he was 50 years old with the success he is having, he'll bypass David Pearson and become the second winningest driver in all of NASCAR history. I'll be the first one to tell you that I never thought anyone would break Pearson's record, but it's right there for the taking if Jeff wants it.
You don't ever hear Jeff or Jimmie blowing their own horns. They don't have to. The numbers they put up on the board do all the talking for them. Stop and think about it a second. Combined, Jeff and Jimmie have 10 NASCAR Sprint Cup championships and something like 160 wins. The real scary thing for all the other competitors has to be that neither one is close to be finished, either.
It's just a different Jeff Gordon this year and I am thrilled for him. He is back to where he once was -- thinking like a champion. If you think you are going to get beat, well, then you will. If you think you are going to win and put yourself in position to win enough times, then you will. We've run 23 races so far this season and Jeff not only has won three of them but 16 times of the 23 he has finished in the top 10. That's the stuff championships are made of.
That's what we are seeing out of a renewed Jeff Gordon this year. The determination, the desire, the refuse to lose -- that catchphrase for the No. 24 car all those years, is back. Jeff is back to having that ability to go a little longer, a little harder and a little better than anybody else.
I know everybody is making a big deal after the race about Jimmie Johnson breaking his shifter but still being able to come back and get a ninth-place finish. Breaking a shifter isn't that uncommon, and to me that's not the story. I don't think folks are giving enough credit to Brad Keselowski and his recovery after pounding the wall late in the race. Brad blew a right-front tire and into the wall he went. They banged the fenders out, put four fresh Goodyear tires on the No. 2 car and Brad came back for an eighth-place finish. Now that was impressive to me.
It's also another example of what I have been saying about "thinking like a champion." They could have very easily given up and taken the car to the garage but they didn't. They refused to give into adversity, overcame it and left Michigan with a top-10 finish. That was clearly the save of the day to me.
I know everyone is pointing to the championship coming down to a Hendrick car versus a Team Penske car. Here we sit with three races to go before the Chase starts, and I'm telling you: Do not overlook that No. 4 car. If you take away the mechanical gremlins and pit-road issues they've had, Kevin Harvick in the No. 4 has been at the top almost each week. I just think he might be the one who surprises everyone once the Chase gets started, so like I say all the time, "Hear me now; believe me later!"
We're headed to my all-time favorite track -- Bristol Motor Speedway. There's not another track on the circuit that is more fun. As a driver you don't get any greater feeling of accomplishment than when you can go to Bristol and come out of there with that big, honkin' trophy. They call it the Last Great Coliseum and it is. You better be a warrior when you go in there, because you are going to have a fight on your hands, and most times that's both on and off the track. Five hundred laps at Bristol, well, you better put your work clothes on and be ready for a hard day's night!