Jeff Gordon leads all current drivers with 82 wins. He’s sixth on the all-time win list and needs one more victory to tie Cale Yarborough for fifth. But Gordon, 38, has won just one of the past 79 races, hardly the windfall he experienced in his younger years. And now, it’s been 36 races since fans saw him in victory lane.
So when Jimmie Johnson kicked his butt again at Las Vegas in February after the No. 48 team opted for four fresh tires when the No. 24 Chevrolet took two, not a whimper was uttered from Gordon.
After finishing second to Ryan Newman Saturday night at Phoenix, Gordon admitted he indeed “was mad” about losing to Johnson at Vegas. He just had plenty of time in the final 16 laps after the No. 48 Chevrolet passed him for the lead to “think about it." Gordon concluded, “We just messed up there.”
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But recently, Gordon doesn’t seem resigned to go down without a fight.
“With the last couple (of races) I felt like they were ours to lose and we lost it,” Gordon said. “So those are frustrating. But we have a lot of positives that are happening right now. And I feel like the fight is there in the whole team. We’re fired up about this season and the way things are going and the way our cars are running.
“We’re only going to get better.” Gordon has made gains over last season. Attention was paid to every detail including disseminating data and adjustments through every aspect of the weekend from practice through qualifying and the race. The team also worked on dissecting the radio chatter throughout the race and Gordon believes the communication with crew chief Steve Letarte and his engineers has improved.
And he has experienced a sense of renewal himself.
At Bristol, Gordon made it clear that NASCAR’s new "let ’em play" philosophy combined with a leniency towards penalties has enabled competitors’ personalities to flourish again without fear of losing points and possibly missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
The following week, Gordon proved he wasn’t going to play the patsy to Matt Kenseth either. Gordon was leading the race on Lap 500 when caution was called — and the driver was hot on the radio. On the restart, Kenseth punted the No. 24 Chevrolet and in turn Gordon retaliated by dumping the No. 17 Ford.
During the second half of Saturday’s race, Gordon and Kenseth were at it again battling relentlessly for seventh place. When Gordon had enough, he referred to Kenseth as a part of the male anatomy and declared, “That’s it." He pushed forward and gained the position with 97 laps remaining.
The feisty Gordon is back.
Although it was the decision to take two tires on the final pit stop that enabled him to lead three laps, Gordon remained in the top 10 throughout the race and continued to contend. He was rewarded with second-place — his best finish of the season — and gained two positions to move to fifth in the point standings.
Unlike Las Vegas, Gordon admitted his frustration Saturday night. But it was Gordon’s optimism that won over in the end.
“I like how we get stronger as the race goes on,” Gordon said. “That’s something we haven’t had for a while. We’re up in the points and we’re knocking on the door for wins. You can’t ask for a whole lot more than that.
“And if you do that enough times, you’re going to get yourself to Victory Lane.”
Considering that Gordon is the defending champ for this week’s race at Texas Motor Speedway, Victory Lane could be just days away.