By Dan Gelston
LONG POND, Pa.: Jeff Gordon made his last win at Pocono a family affair.
It was a win to savor. His 86th career victory was the first time his wife and both of his two young children joined him in a Victory Lane celebration.
But his Pocono run also thrust Gordon into wild-card contention for the Chase, and he finished 10th in the final standings.
Fast forward a season. Gordon enters Pocono still looking for his first win of this season and hoping to hold on to his precarious 10th-place spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship standings.
And, he again can make it another win to remember. Once the dominant “Rainbow Warrior,” Gordon turns 42 today, long removed from the era when he was always the driver to beat at any track.
But the birthday boy still knows how to drive — and he hasn’t forgotten how to win. What he’s still chasing is that elusive fifth Cup championship, 11 years after he celebrated his last one.
It’s what drives him as he’s changed from the driver who shot NASCAR into the mainstream and made it must-see TV into the sport’s elder statesman.
Gordon would love to make another championship push in the No. 24 — as long as he can stay in the field.
“This year has been a strange year for us,” Gordon said. “I feel like last year we showed a little bit more speed up to this point and I felt like all we needed were some breaks to go our way, and a few slight changes to get ourselves in. This year, we just can’t seem to really get a hold of it.”
He needs to figure it out, fast.
Gordon holds the 10th and final locked-in spot in the 12-driver Chase field. Here’s where it gets tricky for the driver known as Four Time: He’s just one point ahead of Tony Stewart, five points ahead of Martin Truex Jr. and six points ahead of Brad Keselowski. The final two wild-card spots in the Chase go to the drivers in 11th to 20th place with the most wins. Should Gordon fall out of the top 10 and not win a race, he’ll be on the outside of the Chase.
“Every year we have gone through this, it’s a different kind of stress level,” he said. “There are stress levels of meeting your full potential, there are stress levels of trying to not let some silly thing happen, or there is the stress level of one little incident.”
Gordon worked fast Saturday to defuse a silly incident when one of his comments about fan turnout for the NASCAR race at Pocono compared to the crowd at the IndyCar race at the track was taken as a shot at the open wheel series.
“I am very, very appreciative of this sport and this series that we are in because when you drive in that tunnel for an IndyCar race, and you drive in here for a NASCAR race, you get a perspective of how big our sport is,” he said Friday.
Gordon made the remarks after he said how much he loved attending the Pocono IndyCar race last month as a fan and how “very cool” the open wheel cars are.
With rain washing out Sprint Cup practice on Saturday, Gordon hit Twitter to defend his love for both series.
“Never meant to take a shot at anyone,” he wrote. “I love #IndyCar just wanted to recognize how fortunate we are to get the crowds that we get in @NASCAR.”
Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan said it was wrong of Gordon to pick on the series. Kanaan called Gordon on Saturday morning to smooth out the misunderstanding.
“I apologized to him. I understood his comment and I think he understood mine,” Kanaan said at Mid-Ohio. “It wasn’t like I was trying to pick a fight. He came to Pocono. I gave him a gecko. He came to Brazil. We’re friends. I just want to make sure we’re all right and we’ll laugh about it. It’s over.”
Now it’s time to race.
No driver has done it better at Pocono than Gordon. His six wins are the most at the 2½-mile triangle track, and he has 18 top-fives and 28 top-10 finishes in his 41 Pocono starts. He’ll start 22nd on today.
“It’s a good track for us, a good place for us to come and fight and do battle like what we’ve been used to doing this year and last year to claw our way into the Chase,” he said. “There’s not enough points that are safe enough and you want to get those wins to try to secure things up for you. We’ve got a lot of tough competitors that we’re racing and battling with for 10th in points, as well as this wild-card spot.”