Jeff Gordon answered the question asked by many.
At 41 years old, does he still have the desire and determination to be one of NASCAR’s elite drivers?
Gordon, who won 13 races during the 1998 season alone, had won only five races over the last five seasons as his life took on new responsibilities with a family and several interests outside of racing.
His Saturday night drive at Richmond, which saw a charge through the field from 25th place to second and qualify for the ‘Chase’ erased those doubts. Gordon gave a vintage performance worthy of one of the sport’s all-time greats, while rival Kyle Busch wilted after a blown pit call by his crew chief.
It wasn’t a single race, however, which placed the four-time champion into NASCAR’s 10-race playoff for the eighth time in nine years.
With his back against the wall and 39 points out of 12th place after blowing an engine at Michigan, Gordon finished third in the Bristol night race, second at Atlanta and second at Richmond.
For his efforts on three very different tracks, he passed three of NASCAR’s hardest charging drivers -- Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman and Busch. In the final 100 laps at Richmond, Gordon was easily the hardest charging driver in the field, passing Mark Martin with seven laps to go and fast closing on race winner Clint Bowyer.
It proved what those inside the garage area have said all along -- the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet is still one of the best drivers in the business.
In a poll of local racing people which included race car drivers, promoters and former crew members, Denny Hamlin was picked as a heavy favorite to win this year’s NASCAR championship. Jimmie Johnson was nearly unanimous as the runner-up pick, although former Sprint Cup driver Robert Pressley chose Johnson as the favorite with the belief the No. 48 team is yet to show its hand in the regular-season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was picked by most to finish in the top five based on the consistency the No. 88 team has shown all season.
Among the other favorites, Gordon was picked anywhere from third to eighth in the polling, and defending champion Tony Stewart was around a 10th-place pick.
Bowyer was the popular darkhorse pick, although a couple of others mentioned Kasey Kahne.
Denny Garrison of Elizabethton defeated Bobby McKinney of Bakersville, N.C., in the Super Pro final at this past Sunday’s DER Bracket Series races at Bristol Dragway.
Garrison had a .028 reaction time and a 5.207 elapsed time on a 5.20 dial-in, at 130.83 mph to take home the crown. McKinney had a quicker .008 reaction time, but broke out after running quicker than his dial.
C.J. Hodges from Boone, N.C. earned the Pro Division win after Bluff City’s Michael Combs also ran quicker than his dial-in.
Cody Spears of Bristol won the Sportsman division final over Kingsport’s Van Greer. Bluff City’s Bill Roberts claimed the Trophy class win and Jerry Turner, also of Bluff City, won the Motorcycle title.
Junior Dragster wins went to Jonesborough’s Ethan Ford in Division 1 and Landon Stahl of Boone, N.C., in Division 2.
Racing continues this week with the Taco Bell Street Fights on Thursday evening, followed by the final DER Bracket Series weekend of the year on Saturday and Sunday.
The UARA-STARS Late Model Series will make their second appearance of the season at Kingsport Speedway on Friday night for the running of the Model City 150. It will be the last race of the season at the 3/8-mile concrete oval with the Street Stock, Pure 4 and Rookie Pure 4 divisions also in action.
Coleman Pressley of Asheville, N.C., captured the UARA-STARS victory at Kingsport Speedway back in May when first-place finisher Ronnie Bassett Jr.’s car failed post-race technical inspection. Blake Jones, a 15-year-old from Sevierville, led a race-high 105 laps only to see hopes of winning go away when he was penalized for jumping a restart just after the century-lap mark.
Travis Swaim of High Point, N.C. is the current series points leader with NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Steven Wallace expected to be among the other entries.
Grandstand and tier-parking gates open at 5:30 p.m.,followed by qualifying and an autograph session with the drivers. The first feature is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m.