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NASCAR Cup Series

Jeff Gordon Goes for Fifth and Final NASCAR Title

For a driver who’s started 796 consecutive races prior to today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Jeff Gordon has been the quintessential and hallmark racer of not only the modern era, but the sport’s history.

It goes without saying how important the 44-year-old Vallejo, CA native has been to Hendrick Motorsports, his Cup home since 1992, to fans who’ve flocked to the tracks for that moment in the garage with him or to root for him from the stands on race day, and most of all, to the sport that he’s given his total effort with for 23 years.

Today, the final chapter of Gordon’s driving career starts a bit after 3 PM ET, pending the uncertain weather forecast, and likely after supper time in the East Coast, it will conclude under nighttime skies at Homestead, FL. After 797 straight starts and at least 93 Cup wins, 325 top-fives, 474 top-10’s and 81 poles, Gordon will hang up his helmet and likely release all of the emotion that he’s held back since making that fateful announcement in January.

When Gordon announced his retirement prior to Daytona Speedweeks, it seemed a bit unreal.  After all, he was coming off one of his finest seasons, scoring four wins, 14 top-fives and 23 top-10’s in 2014.  Scoring a sixth place points finish, many wondered how the future NASCAR Hall of Fame racer would top that effort.

Early in 2015, it seemed like coming back for a last hurrah was more like a celebratory moment than a true final effort towards stock car glory.  During some weekends, it seemed like the only highlight for Gordon and his No. 24 Axalta Chevy team was the ceremonial gift from a track president or dignitary ranging from wine to ponies.

However, when it seemed like Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson’s rapport was at an absolute low and breaking point following the June 7th race at Pocono Raceway, the rebound back towards consistency slowly but surely was reestablished.

Gordon admitted his disappointment about the year prior to the Chase earlier this weekend, commenting on how his team’s perseverance to right their ship.  All hands have been on deck and it’s showing when it really matters.

Gordon negotiates his No. 24 Axalta Chevy during a practice round at Homestead.

Gordon negotiates his No. 24 Axalta Chevy during a practice round at Homestead.

“I’ll tell you, it didn’t right up until the Chase started,” Gordon said.  “I was pretty disappointed.  I mean, it wasn’t that we ever stopped working hard on it and trying to improve our cars, improve our team, improve our communication, and we had some rough patches along the way, but when we got close to Chicago, I started seeing pieces fall together that really showed the strength of our race team, and then of course we kicked it off with a really fast car and solid run at Chicago, and that gave us all confidence in what we were bringing to the racetrack. ”

Similar to the 2001 New England Patriots, this incarnation of the No. 24 team isn’t flashy and they’re not a prolific high power effort.  However, they are smart, strategic, and at times, overlooked for their balanced attack on race day. Case in point:

The October fall race at Charlotte seemed like an absolute dud for Gordon and his No. 24 team after advancing from the first round of The Chase.  It seemed like a 15th place finish was going to be a win for this group but Gustafson and his crew worked on that Chevy SS all afternoon long.  Ultimately, they placed eighth after starting 22nd, a finish that may have not garnered attention from the press but one that was a good indicator of this team’s playoff and title potential.

Kansas was nearly a repeat of their Charlotte result, as Gordon hovered below the top-20 for a portion of the race before pit strategy rallied the four-time Cup champion to a 10th place result.  Suddenly, the thought of getting into the next round of The Chase became a strong possibility.

Prior to the race at Talladega, Gordon expressed confidence in his team, going as far as saying that if they could get through the usually dicey chess match at the 2.66-mile superspeedway, they had a good shot at putting an exclamation point in the Eliminator Round of 8, the penultimate round of the playoffs.

Indeed, Gordon drove a smart, aggressive race, scoring the pole, leading eight laps, and eventually finishing third to urge his way into the third set of the postseason battle.

At Martinsville, Gordon hovered inside the top-five all afternoon long, biding his time and seemingly improving throughout the race despite the dominant performances of Team Penske’s Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. Keselowski and Kenseth would tangle near the final moments of the race, with the latter feeling duped by the Penske racing effort and the rest was history for the Cambridge, WI native’s incident involving Logano.

Capitalizing on the feud was Gordon, scooting below the fracas at turn one to take the lead.  Although Gordon pitted inside the final 40 laps with a majority of the lead lap racers, he wasn’t going to be denied on his opportunity to go to Homestead-Miami as a favorite, as he worked his way past Denny Hamlin and AJ Allmendinger to ultimately score a pivotal playoff victory.

Woo, we're going to Homestead!

Woo, we’re going to Homestead!

Not only was it Gordon’s 93rd career Cup win, it was also his automatic ticket into the Championship Race at Homestead.  The usually stoic Gordon was absolutely excited and elated, perhaps celebrating one of his final wins as a driver.  Jumping in the air and into his crew’s arms like a rockstar, Gordon excitedly proclaimed, “Yea! We’re going to Homestead!”

With two weeks to prepare for this race, Gordon remarked how his team has been able to focus and improve on their championship car, much like how an NFL team earned a top-two playoff seed and a first round playoff bye week.

One last ride for a man who hopes to become Mr. Five-Time!

One last ride for a man who hopes to become Mr. Five-Time!

“Well, I think it was definitely an advantage for us, and it’s one that we needed because we’ve been behind.  What we were able to do was take a car out of rotation that was going to go to Texas and look at what our competitors are doing, and we’re analyzing things all the time from our competitors to try to figure out where we’re getting beat.

We’re also looking internally at what we can do to just make everything better and faster, and so that was a nice luxury to be able to have a nice position to be in because we needed it.  And now I can honestly say that I feel like we’ve improved our chances on Sunday because of it.”

For a man who’s accomplished a lot in his professional and personal life, ranging from his efforts towards pediatric cancer research and his outreach in Rwanda with the Clinton Foundation to his contributions to auto racing, including that outside of NASCAR.  Dirt track racers, open wheel drivers, and aspiring talent who want to be the next big star are likely going to name Gordon as a huge influence with their decision to pursue a career in a truly competitive and rewarding sport.

As for the man himself, winning his fifth and final Cup championship would be truly meaningful for him but it goes beyond just on track accolades and a sparkling racing resume.  This weekend has been a great example of not only their solid year but of this driver and team’s contribution to the sport.

Despite practicing exclusively in race trim conditions during Friday’s opening session at Homestead, Gordon and his No. 24 continually improved their Chevy SS during each round of qualifying.  After sitting 25th with under three minutes left in the first round, Gordon rallied to score a 17th place result.

In the second round, Gordon the sixth fastest time, an even more impressive showing for the 2012 Homestead race winner.  When all was said and done in the final qualifying round, he posted the fifth fastest effort, good enough to start on the inside of Row 3 and ahead of his title rivals Martin Truex Jr. (11th) and Kevin Harvick (13th).

If Gordon scores his fifth title, it'll be crew chief Alan Gustafson's first Cup title.

If Gordon scores his fifth title, it’ll be crew chief Alan Gustafson’s first Cup title.

Regardless of the results for Gordon, it’s been an extraordinary final full-time Cup campaign for a driver who car owner Rick Hendrick believed in back in 1992 at the March Atlanta XFINITY Series race.  Taking a risk on a young driver who drove on the absolute control may have been the biggest reward for any car owner in the history of auto racing and it could pay off with a truly huge moment in sports on Sunday evening.

You know, I didn’t think anything could top the Brickyard 400 in 1994, that win, until Martinsville.  I didn’t think anything could top that 1998 championship where we won 13 races — I’ve always had a tough time trying to balance out which one is the most meaningful, because ’95 was the first one.  It was going against Earnhardt; that was huge. 

’98 was big because of the wins, the 13-win season and how we dominated that season.  But ’01 was extremely personally gratifying to me, to do it with Robbie Loomis, and again, I got a lot of respect in the garage area by doing it with someone other than Ray.

But this one is so much different because my final year, my final race, Ingrid and the kids.  Kids motivate you in a whole new way, and no matter what we’re going to go out and be happy and celebrate, but to do it as a champion, oh, my gosh, I just can’t imagine anything that would be more emotional and more exciting and more gratifying than to look at my wife in the eyes and see that reaction from her when that race is over if we win it.”

Rob Tiongson is a sports writer and editor originally from the Boston area and resides in the Austin, Texas, area. Tiongson has covered motorsports series like NASCAR and INDYCAR since 2008 and NHRA since 2013. Most recently, Tiongson is covering professional basketball, mainly the WNBA, and women's college basketball. While writing and editing for The Podium Finish, Tiongson currently seeks for a long-term sportswriting and sports content creating career. Tiongson enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat. Tiongson is an alum of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and St. Bonaventure University's renowned Jandoli School of Communication with a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism.

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