Jeff Gordon's eighth-place finish at Richmond International Raceway this past weekend put him back on top of the points standings. But it was Gordon's back problems that were the center of attention for most of the race weekend.
Gordon announced he had an MRI on his back—one that was "more detailed" according to the four-time champion. While he did not want to discuss the full results until after additional consultation with his physician, he did share the he did not believe "it's anything serious—it's just something that's causing the pain."
Gordon went on to say that his pain was due to some arthritis in his back, which is "not totally unnatural," especially given what he does for a living.
He continues to credit some of the pain to the wicked hit he took in the Las Vegas race before the installation of the SAFER Barriers on the part of the back stretch where he hit.
The past two race weekends probably did not help Gordon's back situation. In Phoenix, he had a good car, but pit problems plagued the team and caused them to finish in a disappointing 25th place.
"At Phoenix, we really had a top-ten car but we made some mistakes that ended up really hurting us," Gordon replied.
Gordon did not fare much better at Talladega, where he was involved in an crash early in the race.
"Last week was just Talladega and you can't always avoid that," Gordon said.
Gordon was apprehensive going into the Richmond race, especially given his back problems. He was also suffering from terrible allergies, sharing that he is "Pretty bad with pollen and all that stuff getting in the air. It messes with me pretty good."
Gordon expressed concern about the G-forces and the braking required at Richmond, especially since it drives like a short track.
"It will be hard on my back. It will be a strain," Gordon said. "We'll just have to fight through it."
Even during the pre-race activities for Saturday night's Cup race, Gordon seemed in pain, tight-lipped, and appearing to grimace just a bit. Thankfully, he had qualified well, starting the race on the outside pole position.
Gordon's car was fairly good at the beginning of the race, but like many drivers, he and crew chief Steve LeTarte were fighting it most of the evening. Gordon and LeTarte decided to stay out on lap 309 when many others pitted to gain some track position, especially since the car was not that good.
Gordon led for a few laps but then began to fade, passed by drivers who had taken tires. Race winner and birthday celebrant, Kyle Busch, was able to overtake Gordon and Busch never looked back until he took the checkered flag.
In spite of the fade, Gordon was able to bring the DuPont Chevrolet home in the top 10. And most importantly, he was able to regain the points lead, now ahead by 10 points over Kurt Busch who finished 12th at Richmond.
So, while Gordon is back on top of the points standings, his back problems continue to be of concern. While he is not the first driver to contend with back problems, he certainly is in an interesting position having to juggle the back pain while maintaining the points lead.
Gordon has shared with the media that "when I know how we're going to treat it, I'll let you guys know." But the speculation has already began about what may happen, including if Gordon would have to step out of the car in case surgery was needed.
His Hendrick teammate did indeed have to do just that earlier in his career. Mark Martin, after suffering through back pain for years, underwent surgery at the end of the 1999 season.
While Martin returned the next season, he admitted that it has taken him the past ten years to be free of pain. He also has to maintain an extensive physical workout regimen to keep his back loose and in shape.
Another legendary driver, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. also struggled with back pain. Earnhardt too had surgery and was able to come back and continue his racing career until his untimely death in a crash at Daytona.
Jeff Gordon may be back, at least on top of the points standings, but he most likely will have to continue to contend with his back pain and work toward a solution with his doctors and trainers.
Fans of the No. 24 team will be keeping just as close of an eye on their favorite driver. They will surely be hoping that Gordon will not only retain the points lead but will be back on top of his game physically as soon as possible.