Gordon finds Chase difficult to conquer
If Jimmie Johnson has been carrying a golden horseshoe around during his five-year championship run, then when summer turns to fall, Jeff Gordon must be chasing black cats, walking under ladders and accidentally breaking mirrors.
While Johnson has been living a charmed life, making the annual Chase for the Sprint Cup his own personal playground, the 10-race playoff has been Gordon’s Achilles' heel.
Gordon is a four-time NASCAR Cup champion. And with 85 career victories, he is, arguably, the greatest driver of the past two decades. He is third on the all-time win list and fourth in series championships.
But Gordon’s last Cup championship came in 2001, and he has never won NASCAR’s Chase.
In fact, he has been a serious championship threat only twice in the Chase era.
Since the Chase was implemented in 2004, he is known as the driver who has lost the most thanks to the new format.
In 2004, Gordon held a 60-point lead over Johnson when the 26-race regular season ended. He had chased down Johnson, erased a considerable points deficit and was peaking at just the right time of the season.
But when the inaugural Chase began, Kurt Busch leaped to the top of the standings and Gordon lost a tight three-way battle with Busch and Johnson for the championship, finishing third.
In 2007, Gordon was having his best season since 1998, dominating the regular season. Going into the final regular-season race, he held a 317-point lead over Tony Stewart and had led by as much as 371 at one point.
But when the points were reset and the Chase began, Gordon’s big lead was wiped out and he suddenly trailed Johnson by 20 points.
He battled Johnson tooth and nail throughout the Chase, winning two Chase races, but lost the title by 77 points. Despite winning six races and leading the series with 21 top-five finishes and scoring the most top 10s of his career (30), he wound up second in the final standings.
A question that has haunted Gordon for years is this: How many championships would he have won had NASCAR not scrapped the old points system and implemented the 10-race Chase?
Barring a historic collapse, he likely would have cruised to the 2007 title, giving him five championships and putting him one up on Johnson right now.
He might also have won the 2004 title, giving him six, one shy of the all-time record held by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
Instead, Gordon is left to wonder why he can’t seem to sustain his performance during the Chase, or step it up during the 10-race playoff.
“I feel like ever since the Chase was created, we were racing for our first championship because it’s totally different in how you go about it,” Gordon said. “It’s 10 weeks, and you have to put 10 great weeks together.”
Gordon has done that throughout his career. He had a streak of 10 straight top-10 finishes in 2007, but not during the Chase. He went 9 for 10 in the Chase, but it wasn’t enough.
“I still think the best team wins it, but I would have been curious if we had the format from the beginning of my career, how many championships we would have won under this format,” Gordon said.
“One of the reasons why we have 85 (career) wins is because we win at a lot of different tracks. We’re just very good at being patient and going week in and week out, if we can’t finish first, get the top five, if we can’t finish fifth, get the top 10. And that’s what won championships back in the day. Now it takes a lot more than that.”
Though Gordon, 40, still will go down as one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history, there is nothing he would like more at this stage of his career than to win a fifth Cup championship and to do it in the Chase.
“I’ve got four Cup trophies sitting up there that are wood based, and I’m not sure what they’re made of,” Gordon said. “They’re cool trophies, but that Sprint Cup is special and it’s one I don’t have and I would love, love to see it sitting on my shelf.”