April 5, 2012
By Nicholas Schwartz
He’s got four championship trophies at home, is third on the all-time winning list in Sprint Cup history and is part of the dominant team in the sport, but things aren’t so rosy for Jeff Gordon in 2012.
The No. 24 car has gotten off to the slowest start of Gordon’s career, punctuated by a debacle at Martinsville that serves as the perfect snapshot of his season thus far.
If not for the dubious caution flag brought out by David Reutimann’s broken car, it’s almost a certainty that Gordon would have waltzed into victory lane at Martinsville for the eighth time of his career. He led 328 laps on the day, and had caught and passed then-leader Jimmie Johnson with just three laps to go.
But in a season filled with frustration for a driver who’s spent the better part of the last decade frustrated, that’s now how the race ended. The yellow flag came out, the field was bunched up for a green-white-checkered finish and Gordon fell victim to the cars behind him with fresh tires, sent spinning through Turns 1 and 2 after Clint Bowyer’s dive-bomb move to the inside turned awry.
To compound his woes, Gordon ran out of fuel before the race restarted, and eventually would finish 14th. That places him in 21st position in the point standings through six races, 90 points behind first-place Greg Biffle.
Under the old NASCAR Sprint Cup points system -- the system under which Gordon won all four of his titles -- that might be a bit of a problem. But with the advent of the Chase, as long as Gordon can claw his way up to the top 10, or at least win a few races to qualify for the wild card, he’ll have a shot at a fifth title come Fall. The chances of a driver like Jeff Gordon missing the Chase are extremely slim, but just how far can Gordon afford to slide without consequence?
Gordon has never been a driver who makes a late-season dash to the title.
In 1995, a season in which Gordon dominated the series and posted an average finish of 9.5, he seized the points lead away from Sterling Marlin by race No. 16 at Loudon and never looked back, slowly but surely amassing an insurmountable lead.
Dale Earnhardt made a late charge at title No. 8, but Gordon was too far out in front.
In 1997, Gordon used a win at the Pocono 500 in June -- his sixth victory in the first 13 races of the year -- to wrestle the No. 1 spot from Terry Labonte, and despite a duel with Mark Martin mid-year, Gordon was never out of the top two spots.
1998 saw perhaps Gordon’s finest season, in which he racked up a career-high 13 wins and finished 364 points ahead of the next closest driver, Martin. The formula to his success was unchanged, however. Gordon rebounded from a tough outing at the Daytona 500 and locked himself within the top-5 after the first few weeks.
Gordon trailed Jeremy Mayfield for the first half of the season, but a win at Sonoma in race No. 16 gave Gordon the lead in the points, and the inside track to a third title. He would win five of the season’s last 11 races -- the best stretch of his career to close a season -- to blow away the field.
In 2001, the last of Gordon’s championship years, he overtook Dale Jarrett for first place following the June race at Pocono, and conveyed that momentum all the way to Atlanta.
Six races may be too early to pass judgment on the rest of the season, but Sprint Cup drivers are almost a quarter of a way toward the beginning of the Chase. Gordon’s history suggests that he needs to feed off mid-season momentum in order to be successful in the stretch run, or what is now the Chase -- he can’t seemingly flip a switch like Tony Stewart did in 2011.
The next few races will be critical for Gordon, perhaps more than he would even like to admit. The upcoming tracks set up well for the No. 24 to revive his year, but if Gordon only manages to sneak into the Chase, don’t expect the “drive for five” to end in 2012.
If you would like to learn more about Nicholas, please check out his web site at Sports By Schwartz. Nicholas is a Managing editor and sportswriter for The Duke Chronicle at Duke University.
The thoughts and ideas expressed by this writer or any other writer on Insider Racing News, are not necessarily the views of the staff and/or management of IRN.