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Sunday, June 12, 2011
Jeff Gordon still a championship threat

By David Newton
ESPN.com

LONG POND, Pa. -- We were reminded on Sunday at Pocono Raceway that Jeff Gordon is one of the best drivers in the history of NASCAR.

We were reminded as he moved into a tie with Hall of Famer Bobby Allison and soon-to-be Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip for third on the sport's all-time wins list with 84 that he's not done.

We were reminded that the four-time Sprint Cup champion shouldn't be overlooked for younger stars Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch when it comes to the championship picture.

We were reminded that Gordon still has it.

Gordon added to his lore that one day will land him in the Hall of Fame -- which announces its third class on Tuesday -- by tying Bill Elliott for the most career victories at Pocono with five.

Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon won his 84th Cup race Sunday at Pocono, tying him for third all time with NASCAR greats Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison.

He also all but guaranteed himself at worse a wild-card spot in the Chase with his second win of the season that improved him to 11th in points.

He made a statement.

He reminded us of what he's all about.

"I don't know if it's about [people] forgetting," Gordon said. "You've got to go out there and show it. To me, the people that the media talk about and the fans look at and the garage area looks at as a threat to win are the people that are doing it on a consistent basis.

"When we were doing it, people looked at us and were scared of us and thought, 'Don't ever count them out.' "

Over many of the past 10 years, Gordon was counted out before the season got to this point. He's had only three wins in the past four seasons and hasn't been a serious threat to win the title since 2007, when he won six races and finished second.

Gordon came into this season believing that would change, and thought it had after a victory at Phoenix in Week 2.

"We were, 'Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah! We're going to get them,' " Gordon said. "Then it kind of fell off the cliff for us."

Gordon fell hard, recording an average finish of 18.7 over the next 10 races. His intermediate program was in such a state of disarray that he was testing every chance he had.

"Then at that point it was not about how people looked at us," Gordon said. "It was, 'We've got to get it together ourselves.' Days like today give us that confidence and momentum and shows the competition they might need to start worrying about us again.

"But we've got to consistently show that. That's why the people fear the 48. That's why people fear Carl and the guys that run up front, because they do it week in and week out."

Gordon has done it consistently three straight weeks now. He was fourth last week at Kansas with a chance to win and had one of the fastest cars at Charlotte a week earlier before fuel mileage turned a potential victory into a disappointing 20th.

He has shown small signs of returning to the form he had from 1995-1999, when he won an amazing 47 races and three of his four titles.

"We were living at the peak of the mountain for a number of years," Gordon recalled. "I hope we can get back to that moment and that peak because I know I would have a far better appreciation for it than I ever did before."

That happens when you've gone from the top of the mountain to the valley.

"I'll put it in the perspective of the great Mark Martin," Gordon said of his 51-year-old teammate. "These days, you just never know when it's going to be your last win.

"Because we haven't won as much recently, you definitely take that into account and you appreciate those wins a whole lot more when they come."

In a season during which we've seen week after week of races won on fuel strategy and tire strategy, after seeing week after week of off-the-track drama steal the spotlight from the winner, this one was pure and simple.

At [almost] 40 years old, being in the Chase is not enough. ... I want to be a threat for the championship. I'm not saying we're there, but today was definitely a big step in getting us there.

-- Jeff Gordon

Before the final restart with 41 laps remaining, with Gordon second behind Juan Pablo Montoya, crew chief Alan Gustafson radioed, "Our strategy is go as fast as we can."

To which Gordon responded, "I like that strategy."

So Gordon got a good jump on the restart and took the lead. He gave it up during the final series of green-flag pits stops, but once he cycled back out front with 18 laps remaining, there was no catching him.

We were reminded that with the right car and crew chief, as he had with Ray Evernham early in his career, Gordon still had the talent to dominate.

"It's impressive to see what he's done over his career," second-place Kurt Busch said. "Not just this decade, not just the 2000s, all the way into the 1990s. He's truly a legend in our sport.

"When I came in as a rookie I set the bar to compete against him and race against him the best I could. Today I wanted to show him he's going to have to work harder to get these wins in the latter part of his career. But he's Jeff Gordon; he's that good."

Yes, he is.

Just because Gordon is closing in on his 40th birthday in August doesn't mean he's given up on winning races and titles. If anything, he's driven to win now more than ever, in part because he wants to prove he still has it and in part because he's tired of seeing teammate Johnson steal his spotlight with five straight titles.

"Man, I'm going to be 40, but I'm not in the rocking chair, yet," Gordon said with a laugh.

Listening to the postrace news conference, it seemed that way. It was almost to the point of wondering what Gordon will say for his Hall of Fame acceptance speech.

But Gordon isn't ready to put his career in perspective because it's still a work in progress, because he still has things to prove.

"I want my mindset to be in that mode of, 'How do I enjoy this moment?' " Gordon said.

He's looking forward to Tuesday's debriefing on what the team can do to improve on this nearly flawless performance. He's looking forward to preparing for Michigan, another of his favorite tracks. He's looking forward to solidifying himself as a contender for the championship, not as a wild card.

He doesn't want to have to remind people of how good he once was because he believes, and rightfully so, that he's still pretty damn good.

He doesn't have to convince Gustafson.

"I believe he's as good as anybody out there," Gustafson said. "I believe there are 42 guys in the garage who are envious of my position."

They were on Sunday as Gordon reminded us all what he has been and what he still can be.

"I don't just want to be in the Chase," Gordon said. "At [almost] 40 years old, being in the Chase is not enough. ... I want to be a threat for the championship. I'm not saying we're there, but today was definitely a big step in getting us there."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.