Just when you're ready to count him out, Jeff Gordon keeps coming back.
His most recent bounce back occurred in this year's season-ending race at Homestead, where Gordon came from behind to beat rival Clint Bowyer for the race victory, earning his 87th career Sprint Cup win—the most wins of any driver in NASCAR's modern era from 1972 to the present.
Gordon's achievement might have had more notoriety had it not been for the fact that the Homestead race was also where Brad Keselowski won his first career Sprint Cup championship.
Five years ago, Gordon debated whether he'd even still be racing at the age of 40. But here he is now at 41 and he's had his two best seasons performance-wise in a row since 2007.
Gordon will be back behind the wheel of the No. 24 Chevrolet in 2013, marking his 21st full-time season on the Sprint Cup circuit.
And if he stays true to the form he's shown us the last two seasons, Gordon could potentially be on the verge of a surprising season in 2013. Let's look at why:
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
Just when you're ready to count him out, Jeff Gordon keeps coming back.
Gordon has definitely enjoyed a performance resurgence in the last two seasons, most notably in the wins column.
He won three races in 2011 and two in 2012, the most wins per season since he won six races in 2007. That was also the year he had his best overall season finish—second behind champion and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson—since winning his fourth and last championship in 2001.
By comparison, although he still racked up top 10 season finishes, including a third-place finish in 2009, Gordon suffered through some long winless periods as well.
He failed to win a race in a season for the first time in his career in 2008, earned just one win in 2009, and again was shut out of victory lane in the entire 2010 season.
Still, no other driver can boast the kind of overall season-to-season record Gordon has compiled, finishing in the top 10 in 18 of the last 19 seasons.
Some might ask how Gordon could be enjoying a performance resurgence if he finished 10th in 2012, the third-lowest season finish of his career, and the worst since he missed the Chase and finished 11th in 2005.
He also had to race his way into this year's Chase, just barely clinching his berth in the final qualifying race at Richmond in early September.
Much of the reason for that was bad luck and inconsistency, both during the 26-race regular season, but especially so during the Chase.
But the win at Homestead gave us a look at the Jeff Gordon of old, was a great way to at least partly make up for some of the struggles he had during 2012, and definitely gives the No. 24 team momentum and cause for great optimism heading into 2013.
If there's going to be a surprising driver in the new season, Gordon has as good a chance as any to not only open some eyes.
They say the third time is the charm, and that could potentially hold true for Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson.
The pair will enter their third season together in 2013, and if the wins and performance Gordon has generated the last two seasons is any indication, this could be a significantly improved campaign for the No. 24 team.
Gordon won three championships and flourished under former crew chief Ray Evernham, won one title with Robbie Loomis, had a strong run with Steve Letarte (who moved over to become Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief in 2011) and has shown great chemistry and communication with Gustafson, one of the brightest young minds atop any pit box in Sprint Cup racing.
While some young crew chiefs may find it somewhat intimidating to work under a future Hall of Famer like Gordon, Gustafson has shown to be a more than credible presence both atop the pit box and also as a team leader. T
ogether, the duo make a great combination.
But two things continue to hound the pair: bad luck and inconsistency. Just when it looks like Gordon may go on a significant run, he winds up either being involved in a wreck (usually caused by another driver), or suffers through bad luck such as mechanical failure, bad pit stops and the like.
Sooner or later, that misfortune and bad luck has to turn to good fortune and good luck—and if that old axiom about the third time being a charm is indeed true, Gordon and Gustafson may be destined for their best season together in 2013.
The 2012 season saw Gordon display a few elements from his past that not only brought back comparisons of better and more successful times for him, but also that he's not getting soft in middle age.
That was most readily seen in the second-to-last race of the season at Phoenix, when Gordon finally had enough of a season-long battle with Clint Bowyer.
When Bowyer punted Gordon into the wall late in the race, Gordon did something that he's not really been known for much of his career: He retaliated and in a big way, intentionally wrecking Bowyer and costing him what remaining mathematical chance he'd have of catching soon-to-be champion Brad Keselowski in the Chase.
Gordon's ire at Bowyer definitely showed he still has a fire that burns brightly within.
By pounding Bowyer into the wall, Gordon made a statement of sorts to other Cup drivers that he's no longer Mr. Nice Guy and that he's not going to take it if another driver continues to try and take advantage of him or keeps trying to wreck him.
It certainly must have opened up Bowyer's eyes. Retaliation from Gordon was probably the last thing on Bowyer's mind when he put Gordon into the wall just moments before Gordon retaliated not just for that incident, but for a season long's laundry list of incidents between the two.
And then there was the more humorous side of the "old" Jeff Gordon, when he tried to grow back what had been his signature mustache when he came into Sprint Cup racing in 1992.
While Gordon good-naturedly laughed when reporters asked if he was trying to get his "mean look" back as a motivating factor in the Chase, the 'stache enjoyed only a brief resurgence, coming and going in less than two weeks.
Who knows, maybe if Gordon would have stuck with the 'stache, it might have improved his overall performance in the Chase.
But all things considered, and particularly with the Bowyer dust-up at Phoenix, Gordon made it pretty clear that he has his mojo back and that we may very well see more of the "old" Jeff in 2013, the same kind of driver that previously won four Cup championships in seven seasons.
Gordon has conceded that he'll likely never catch Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most Cup championships in a career (seven apiece).
Teammate Jimmie Johnson, who has five Cup titles, may still have a shot at tying or breaking Petty and Earnhardt's mark, but that doesn't mean that there's still not at least one more Cup crown somewhere in Gordon's future.
And perhaps the biggest motivating force to earn No. 5 rests with Gordon's family, particularly daughter Ella and son Leo.
Both youngsters are reaching a stage in their own lives that they are not only aware of what their dad does for a living, but what a fifth championship would mean to him if he could share it with his offspring.
Ella will turn 6 years old in June and Leo will turn 3 in August. What better belated birthday presents than for their father to win a championship in their honor?
In fact, it would not be a total surprise if Gordon indeed wins No. 5, that he immediately retires and goes out on top. That would be just one more thing for his kids to be proud of for the rest of their lives.
From the final five races of the 2007 season until the second race of 2010, Gordon went through a streak of 114 races with just one victory, the worst period of frustration in his Cup career.
But now with five wins in his last two seasons, Gordon not only has shown he can still win races, but he also is still hungry for more.
Gordon currently sits third on NASCAR's all-time wins list with 87 triumphs. Only Richard Petty's 200 career wins and David Pearson's 105 victories exceed Gordon's own ledger.
He needs 18 wins to tie and 19 to pass Pearson. Given that he'll turn 42 this coming season, that's a pretty heady expectation, even for a four-time champ and 87-race winner like Gordon.
More than likely, a more realistic goal for Gordon to shoot for is perhaps 90 or 95 wins. If he maintains the current pace of wins that he's achieved over the last two seasons, he could likely reach 90 as early as 2013, and perhaps 95 by 2015 or 2016.
That's predicated upon whether he chooses to race another four more years. Still, ever since he turned 40 – and actually, maybe even slightly before that – Gordon has acquired a renewed vigor and motivation to win as much as possible. He goes into every race feeling he has just as good of a shot at reaching victory lane as the 42 other guys around him. It's that desire that keeps him coming back every season for another grueling 36-race schedule.
He doesn't need the money. Rather, for Gordon, it's all about being the best he can be and doing what a race car is born to do: win races.
Sure, he'll likely never win 13 races in a single season like he did in 1998, or even 10 races like he did in both 1996 and 1997.
Gordon's legacy in in NASCAR history is assured, one that will earn him first ballot approval when he eventually becomes eligible for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
But it's safe to say Gordon probably has at least five and maybe as many as 10 more Cup wins still left in him. As long as he keeps himself in good shape physically and retains that hunger to win, he could very well surprise a lot of people still.
And that's why we see the potential for even more surprises from Gordon in 2013.