One of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series contemporary legends turns 42 on Sunday, and more importantly, he just turned into the Top 10 in the points standings after last week in Indianapolis. I refer to Jeff Gordon, who’s got a lot of momentum as the circuit arrives back at Pocono Raceway for the GoBowling 400 (1 PM ET, ESPN) on Sunday.
Gordon joined the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. in defining NASCAR in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. Gordon won the championship in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001. Since arriving on the scene in 1992 he’s finished in the Top 10 every year but one—that was in 2005 when he finished 11th. TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill, informed me that when it comes to popularity, “Gordon Nation” is still the only real rival to “Earnhardt Nation”, now carried by Dale Junior.
But Gordon’s persistent popularity hasn’t seen him win races lately or seriously compete for the Sprint Cup. In his heyday, double-digit wins per year were the norm. As late as 2007, Gordon won six races in a season. But since that point, he’s only won six combined.
The consistency is there, but the wins are not, and it took to the very last race of the regular season a year ago for him to slip into the playoffs, and the past three seasons have seen Gordon finish between 8th and 10th in the final standings.
“Competition has gotten much better,” Bill said, when I asked for a reason regarding Gordon’s decline. More money is poured in by more teams as the sport’s popularity is increased.
In this way, we might draw an NBA analogy and compare Gordon to the Lakers and Celtics of the Bird-Magic era. The league had a lot of teams that frankly weren’t all that serious, and it become easy for the top ones to stockpile talent and win large numbers of games.
But when the NBA got more popular and more money was on the line, the other franchises began to get serious. Consequently, it’s almost impossible for anyone to dominate like the Lakers and Celtics of the 1980s. So it goes with Jeff Gordon on the increasingly popular NASCAR Sprint Cup Series circuit.
There are also practical reasons for Gordon’s relative decline. “Cars don’t handle like they used to,” Bill told me. “They’re more fickle, more sensitive and a driver has to be a lot more careful.”
This of course does not mean Gordon isn’t still a very competitive driver. What he doesn’t have in wins, he’s making up for with consistency. In five of the last seven races, he’s finished in the Top 10, and that’s propelled him to 10th place overall. Per the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series postseason qualification rules, if Gordon is to make it without a win, he needs to finish at least 10th. To get one of the two wild-card spots, he needs a victory.
He’s at the right place though—there are two races each year at Pocono, and Gordon won here last year and also in 2011. He’s a 12-1 bet to make it three years in a row on Sunday. With his birthday and the playoff push all coming together, the timing for a win couldn’t be better.
SUNDAY AT POCONO
Pocono presents a unique challenge for the drivers. It’s a tri-oval track, and each of the three corners is different. Jimmie Johnson won here in June, and Johnson is coming off a near-miss at Indianapolis last Sunday. With four wins, he and Matt Kenseth remain tied for the lead in how the standings will look when they are re-set for the playoffs (see the aforementioned link on playoff qualification rules for a layman’s explanation). JJ is a heavy 3-1 favorite to win again on Sunday.
Brad Keselowski was the driver displaced from the Top 10 when Gordon moved in, and last year’s champ is a 25-1 shot. Lacking a victory, he needs to either win, or reclaim his Top 10 status. Ryan Newman’s win in Indy was a potential game-changer. Newman is now a factor in the wild-card discussion. He’s 20 points back of Martin Truex, who would get the final spot as of today, but Newman’s win means that at least for now, it’s only about point accumulation.