LONG POND, Pa. (AP) — Jeff Gordon is pushing 40, far removed from the cocky kid who shot to superstardom and helped put NASCAR on the mainstream map.
At any age, Gordon still knows how to win.
Don’t put the rocking chair on the front porch quite yet. Not when Gordon still burns out near the finish line, stamps his name alongside the sport’s greats in the record book, and believes a fifth Cup championship is a realistic goal.
Gordon moved into a tie for third on NASCAR’s Sprint Cup career victories list, winning for the 84th time when he took the checkered flag Sunday at Pocono Raceway. His 84 wins tie him with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for most in Cup history, and he tied Bill Elliott with five wins on the 2 1/2-mile triangle track.
“There’s no doubt, I’m blown away with what I’ve accomplished,” Gordon said.
It’s a career for the ages — and the aged.
Gordon won in February at Phoenix International Raceway and has multiple victories in a season for the first time since 2007. Gordon’s victory at Phoenix ended his drought at 66 races without a win. This 11-race winless stretch was just a blip compared to that miserable skid.
Gordon used to not drive more than a month without a win. He reached double-digit victories in three straight seasons (1996-98) and seemed a lock to hit 100 victories by 35 and put himself behind only Richard Petty on the all-time list.
Petty leads with 200 wins and David Pearson is second with 105.
Gordon’s won races with a mustache and a mullet, and his hair tinged with a touch of gray. He won them as the most feared driver on the planet in the ’90s, then sporadically in recent years. He celebrated as a “Rainbow Warrior” and a family man.
This victory was a bit more special for Gordon, who turns 40 in August. His first order of business once he hopped out of the car was a kiss from his daughter, Ella. Gordon’s wife and two children are his greatest gift.
But the pairing he needed most was with Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Alan Gustafson. Team owner Rick Hendrick’s offseason decision to shake up his organization has proved an overall success for the organization — he also placed Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the top-six at Pocono. Gordon and Gustafson have the No. 24 Chevrolet in fantastic shape for a spot in the Chase for the championship.
Gordon is known in the sport as “Four-Time” because of the Cup titles he won in 1995, 1997, 1998, and 2001. Wins have been harder to get for Gordon as his career stretches into its 20th season. He posted winless seasons in 2008 and 2010 and, even in the years he qualified for the Chase, was never a true threat to bring home the title.
“We were living at the peak of the mountain there for a number of years,” Gordon said. “It was awesome. When you’re there, you know you’re going to get knocked off eventually. You can’t always stay on top.”
Johnson, once his protegé and late-night running buddy, surpassed Gordon and has won the last five championships.
The race on the mountaintop belonged to Gordon.
Gordon entered the race having led a record 918 laps at Pocono Raceway. He added 39 to the total Sunday.
“When you see what he’s done in his career, not just this decade, not just in the 2000’s, but all the way back to the ’90s, he’s a true legend in this sport,” Kurt Busch said.
Busch, the polesitter, was second and Kyle Busch third.
Kyle’s Busch fun was short-lived. NASCAR announced his No. 18 Toyota failed postrace inspection because the left-front end was too low. His car will be taken to NASCAR’s research and development center.
Johnson and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five. Earnhardt continued his rebirth with a sixth-place finish. It capped a great day for Hendrick Motorsports — first, fourth and sixth.
Gordon first won at Pocono in 1996. He won again in 1997 and 1998, then a rain-shortened race in 2007.
He was helped Sunday once some of the early contenders fell off. Denny Hamlin, who led early and has four wins here, ran into tire woes and dropped back to 19th. Carl Edwards lost his grip on the points lead — his 40-point lead was sliced to six — when a bad engine knocked him out early. He finished 37th.
Once those two were out of contention, the 500-mile race belonged to Gordon. The Busch brothers tried to catch him, but just didn’t have enough in the end.
“I’m giving it all I’ve got and I just can’t close the gap,” Kurt Busch said.
Gordon hit a rough patch after his Phoenix victory — including a 36th at Las Vegas and a 39th at Richmond — but a change in the Chase format this year put an added emphasis on wins. That stamps Gordon as a contender for that fifth title.
He’s in great shape thanks to regular workouts after a creaky back a few years ago made him consider retirement. Gordon still has the fire to compete and poked fun at all the questions that made it seem like the end was near.
When all the pieces are in place, Gordon feels, “I’m as good as I’ve ever been.”
“The things that we’ve talked about and believe in are starting to come true,” Gordon said.
Gordon was behind the wheel this week for the 2-hour drive from his New York City apartment to the Poconos.
He said he loves it any time he can get himself to the track.
No doubt, he loves it even more when he can park in Victory Lane.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)