Golden Oldie Jeff Gordon Gives Classic Performance to Make the Chase

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistSeptember 9, 2012

Could Jeff Gordon be No. 1 at the end of the upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup?
Could Jeff Gordon be No. 1 at the end of the upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup?Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE

Jeff Gordon didn't just finish second and sneak his way into the Chase for the Sprint Cup in Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway.

Rather, Gordon kicked down the door and accomplished much more than that. Like AARP, one of his sponsors, Gordon struck a blow for Sprint Cup's older, veteran drivers.

Forget youngsters like Kyle Busch (we'll get to him a bit later), Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and the like. Gordon showed Saturday that the older the wine in NASCAR, the sweeter the taste…or in this case, the outcome.

Like a classic rock song that you never grow tired of listening to, the 41-year-old Gordon brought back fond memories, particularly for older and longtime race fans, who still fondly remember Gordon's glory days.

Without question, Saturday's performance was nothing short of classic Gordon, the same driver who has won four Sprint Cup championships in his career—but none, unfortunately, since 2001.

It didn't make a difference that he fell back in the pack and was one lap down prior to the second interruption of the race by rain. Nope, Gordon came back to drive like he did in the 1990s and early 2000s.

He drove on the edge, but with a cool and collective caution. He stretched the limits of his car to the breaking point, but not to where he would wreck and knock himself out of the Chase.

Perhaps more than anything, Gordon displayed a confidence that we haven't seen in years, probably as far back as his last Cup championship in 2001.

Knowing that it was a mano-a-mano battle between him and Kyle Busch for the 12th and final Chase for the Sprint Cup qualifying position, Gordon did something that I'm pretty sure surprised a few people.

Plain and simple, he just completely—and intentionally—forgot about Busch and the threat he posed to Gordon's Chase chances. He forgot about the mathematical possibilities that would influence whether he made or missed the Chase and simply went out and raced like Jeff Gordon in his prime.

And you know what? While we don't want to get ahead of ourselves, that may be the best way for Gordon to approach—and race in—the Chase. Forget about the other 11 drivers in much the same fashion he forgot about the younger Busch brother Saturday night, and consider what could happen.

In fact, Gordon has even more to forget about now that he's in the Chase.

He can forget about all the extraneous distractions, forget about each of the other 11 Chase competitors, forget about all the talk of teammate Jimmie Johnson going for his sixth Cup title or Tony Stewart going for his fourth and second in a row, or even Dale Earnhardt and Denny Hamlin going for their first respective Cup crowns.

No, Gordon has to do in the Chase what he did Saturday night: run his kind of race and only his kind of race. If he does that, then 10 weeks from now, we may be talking about Jeff Gordon—no longer a four-time champion, but instead, a five-time champ.

If that happens, it would re-instill a belief within Cup racing that Gordon is just as good as Johnson (again) and that Gordon might reclaim his ranking as the No. 1 driver within Hendrick Motorsports.

Even more, if Gordon were to win the 2012 Cup championship, it would wipe away all the questions or doubts about whether he is past his prime, whether he's washed up or whether he should have retired a few years ago.

And, perhaps more than anything, it would also return one other thing to balance: that Gordon remains the winningest active driver in the sport. That would potentially allow him to regain his former title as best driver in the sport, as well—at least for 2012, that is—if he goes on to win the title.

Sure, Gordon could still pull a flop in the Chase, much like he did in at least three editions of NASCAR's playoffs during Johnson's run towards five titles in a row.

And there's no question he has his work cut out for him, as with the points now reseeded for the Chase, Gordon will start NASCAR's marquee 10-race playoff in the 12th and final qualifying spot.

But look at the bright side—and that's the ONLY side Gordon is looking at—there's no place for him to go but up.

Like Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven, the Rolling Stones' Jumpin' Jack Flash, AC/DC's Highway to Hell or Aerosmith's Dream On, Gordon's performance Saturday was indeed a classic.

Meanwhile, Kyle Busch walked off bitterly for failing to make the Chase. He managed only a few short, terse words to reporters as he huffed and puffed back to the hermit-like sanctuary of his motor home.

The younger Busch brother could learn a lot from watching how Gordon handled himself with class and dignity going into, during and most definitely after Saturday's race.

Ultimately, that, plus lots more years of experience, were what got Gordon into the Chase—and what kept Busch out of it.

Actually, it may be to Gordon's advantage to be starting from the back of the Chase field. Don't forget, with the new points system NASCAR implemented last season, Gordon is now only 12 points out of first place.

Twelve points! That’s a piece of cake for him to overcome, much easier to do than the spectacular rallying job he performed Saturday night. (And wasn't 12 points what separated Busch and Gordon going into the race?)

In fact, Gordon could very likely erase that mark and jump from 12th to first next week in the Chase opener at Chicago if he has a great race and the top four seeds—Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski—all have bad starts to the Chase.

Given the wave of confidence and momentum Gordon will ride into Chicago, anything's possible. Today, he makes the Chase. Tomorrow, he wins it.

Hey—stranger things have happened. Just look at how Stewart unexpectedly won five races in last year's Chase en route to his third championship, or all the breaks and good fortune that Johnson had during his five-year Chase reign.

If things like that can happen to them, why not to Gordon, right?