- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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BROOKLYN, Mich. -- On the track, Jeff Gordon reiterated why he might finally earn a new nickname come November. Off the track, Jeff Burton reminded everyone he's still deserving of his nickname, even as his career winds down.
Gordon, driving with a fire burning brighter than it seemingly has in years, dug deep on yet another late-race restart to pull away from Joey Logano and win the Pure Michigan 400 on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway. It was Gordon's third win of the season and second in four races as he gears up for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
If Gordon can navigate the minefield the new-look Chase will throw at drivers, he can finally shed the "Four-Time" moniker he's carried since he won his fourth Cup championship back in 2001. The once-ballyhooed "Drive for Five" seemed like a distant memory entering the season, with some ready to count the days until Gordon turned over the keys to perceived successor-in-waiting Chase Elliott.
But unless Gordon wins the title and makes good on a preseason quip that he might just retire on the spot at Homestead, he's driving like a man not looking to go away anytime soon.
"What I see now with Jeff today is how smart he is," owner Rick Hendrick said. "If someone gets in front of him or is trying to block him like they did today, instead of pushing the envelope like maybe he did in the early years, he'll just back off and let them use their stuff up, then he'll pass them.
He continued: "You just don't see him make any mistakes. I think all of his years of experience is paying off for him right now. When you have the fastest car, everybody races you extremely hard. They know they got to get you on the restart. If they can do that, probably they can pull away."
Hendrick said Gordon is so happy these days, it's like he's a kid again. And Hendrick has seen plenty of aggressiveness from Gordon -- when needed -- to mesh perfectly with the patience displayed at other times.
"Well, there's got to be some advantages to being 43 [years old] out there," Gordon said. "I would hope being more patient and using your head a little bit more would be one of them. I think I've always felt like to be a top driver in this series you got to balance that out with aggressiveness, being smart, utilizing your equipment, making the most of it.
"Right now, I've got great racecars," he continued. "That's obvious. I've got a great crew chief [in Alan Gustafson] that believes in what I'm doing out there, and I believe in what he's doing and the engineers."
Logano, who earned his first win with Team Penske here a year ago, looked like he was going to add another, as he'd beaten Gordon on several restarts that left Gordon griping about Logano's tactics. But a caution after Kurt Busch got into the wall gave Gordon another chance on Lap 184.
Gordon won the Brickyard 400 with what he called the restart of his life, and this one wasn't too shabby either. Logano, who led five times for a race-high 86 laps, settled for third, and Kevin Harvick finished second for the fourth straight race at Michigan.
"Right now, I feel like I'm driving smart, but also when it comes down to the restarts, I'm confident in my car enough that I can put it in places I haven't been able to put it in the past and be a little bit more aggressive when it matters," Gordon said. "Certainly things are going well, no doubt about that. I'm as shocked as anybody else."
Showing veteran perspective even as a 24-year-old, Logano says there were plenty of positives despite finishing third. In short, he feels he can win the Chase and wants his team to realize that as well.
"We got to find a little bit more speed to keep up with one car today," said Logano, adding that Gordon's strength was maintaining speed during long green-flag runs.
"We're close," he said. "[We've] still got to keep working hard. We got to find that next level here in three weeks now to be this strong in the Chase. But right now, we're in the hunt. We're doing what we got to do."
Harvick feels the same way about his team. He's had speed all year in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing, but consistency has been another matter. From mechanical failures early in the year to miscues by the crew on numerous occasions, there were times Harvick couldn't hide his frustration.
The off-week in July allowed Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers to refocus, and the result has been finishes of eighth, second, seventh and second.
"I think I've tried to do a better job at handling situations," Harvick said. "I think we've all worked together a little bit longer, and going back to these tracks for a second time, know what we want in our cars. There's just a lot of things that are different as we came back from the break."
Harvick says the team is better in all facets; the question is whether it will be enough to defeat Gordon if his team continues at its current level.
Burton's days of contending for championships are in the past, but the way he's handled his career has earned near-universal respect throughout the sport. After all, you don't become known as "The Mayor" of the garage by happenstance.
Having just two previous starts this year, as he transitions into a role in broadcasting, his perspective, eloquence and even-keeled demeanor undoubtedly factored into his being asked to fill in for Tony Stewart. It was the second straight race Stewart has sat out while trying to regroup from hitting Kevin Ward Jr. during a sprint car race Aug. 9.
The fallout from that incident continues, and much of it has thrust racing in general into the national spotlight for all the wrong reasons, a point not lost on Burton.
A broken tailpipe that set fire to the car's heat shields sent Burton to the garage for repairs, and when he spoke with the media, he called this one of the hardest weeks he's endured in the sport. Asked why, he was blunt.
"I think just ... these are people that we are talking about," Burton said. "You have a lot of conversations about the 'what if's' [of the accident], but at the end of the day these are real people that are human beings and have feelings, and I think a lot of times we forget that. We talk about people like they are robots, and they are not; they are human beings. Just listening to some of the misinformation and people speculating about stuff, I just thought it was a travesty in a lot of ways."
Burton pointed out that Ward's family and Stewart's family are in "agonizing pain," and there's nothing he can do to fix that. Burton has no connection to Ward's family other than the bond all racers share; that's enough for him to feel for them in their time of loss.
Having known Stewart for years, he's not happy with how some have portrayed him since Ward's death.
"Tony doesn't beat his chest and talk about the things he does for people. We know it, we see it, but nobody else does," Burton said. "[Dale] Earnhardt was like that. Earnhardt didn't want anybody to know the things he did for people. That is how Tony is, and that is something a lot of people [don't know]. They only know Tony because he threw a helmet. They only know Tony because he got mad. Well hell, I get mad, too. I just hate [that] people jump to conclusions."
While Burton was standing up for the sport he loves, Gordon was busy striking a claim for the sport's on-track veterans.
And he was probably happiest that his win came down to proving that -- once again -- you can teach an "old" driver new tricks.
"As a driver, especially somebody that's been getting beat up over the years about restarts, it's pretty nice to have the last two wins come down to restarts," Gordon said. "That's just building all of our confidence in what we're doing [and] making these races a lot of fun to go to."
15dTom McKean, ESPN Stats & Information