It’s hard to find any driver more excited about this weekend’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway than four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon.
Third on the Sprint Cup Series all-time victory list with 85 wins, Gordon thinks back to the one that got away last August.
His No. 24 Chevrolet was clearly the dominant car in the IRWIN Tools Night Race, where Gordon led a race-best 206 laps. However, Brad Keselowski moved out front during the final round of pit stops and Gordon was left battling Martin Truex Jr. for second place.
Still, it was his strongest run at Bristol in nearly a decade and easily his best finish on the .533-mile oval since the track was reconfigured in 2007.
“Any time you run well at a track, it always seems to move further up the list of your favorites,” Gordon said. “The way we ran (at Bristol Motor Speedway) last summer, I can’t
wait for this weekend.”
It’s not been a good start to the season for the five-time Bristol winner, who finished 24th in the Daytona 500 with engine problems. He had an eighth-place run at Phoenix and was 12th this past weekend at Las Vegas to rank 17th in the latest point standings.
Still, there is only one place he’s concerned with this weekend. After seeing Carl Edwards lose last season’s Sprint Cup championship to Tony Stewart on a tiebreaker, and knowing wins can give a driver a wild-card entry into the Chase, Gordon knows first-place finishes are at a premium.
“I think we saw last year how important wins are during the Chase, and how important they were just getting into the Chase, but it’s still early and only the fourth race of the season, so there is a lot that still can and will happen,” Gordon said. “But if you make the Chase, 10 points earned now could pay huge dividends later in the year.”
Despite the sluggish start, Gordon is confident in his second season with crew chief Alan Gustafson. He likes the direction his race team is headed after posting three wins and finishing eighth in the point standings a year ago.
“I feel like we made gains in our pit crew, our team communication, and just really building the cars to suit what I need to make sure that when we get to those final 10 races that we have a car that can win or be in the top five every week,” he said. “I feel like our off-season went really well.”
Still, the competition gets tougher every year as talented young drivers come along. Gordon was once a poster boy for those youngsters, racking up over 600 wins in quarter-midgets, USAC cars and other series before making it to the Cup level.
“I was racing Sprint Cars when I was 12 or 13 years old,” he said. “Now, there’s more racing geared toward younger kids. I was racing against adults and I feel like that experience took me to a whole other level in a very short period of time. I don’t know if that opportunity is quite there today as much as it used to be.”
Gordon’s advice for a young driver is never to get content with just one form of racing or get hung up on trying to master one level.
“My thing is you always have to be in a different kind of car and on a different type of track racing against different competitors all the time, as young as you possibly can,” he said. “That’s what makes you diverse enough to be able to come to this level and win on road courses, win on short tracks, and win on high banks and flat tracks and superspeedways. You’ve got to be able to adapt to all different types of situations all the time.”
His track record which includes 70 career poles and nearly 400 top-10 finishes shows an ability to adapt well to those situations. However, this is his 11th year chasing an elusive fifth series championship.
Now 40, he said he’s never wanted a championship more.
“I think that it would mean more than anything to me right now,” he said. “My life is so great right now between family and being in my 20th year in the Cup Series, and being
extremely successful in 20 years. I have nothing left to prove.
“It’s just that it’s something that I want badly. This team has earned it and deserves it. They really are a great team. I want to be able to complete that for them. I feel we’re
the best team that I’ve been a part of in a long time. When you’re a good team and you know you’re capable of it, the ultimate goal is to win that Sprint Cup trophy.”