Will Jeff Gordon's 2014 Success Go to the Next Level at Darlington?

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistApril 11, 2014

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Darlington Raceway is so legendary and notorious that it has not one, but two nicknames.

There's "The Lady in Black" for the dark black asphalt color the racing surface has, and there's also the "Track Too Tough To Tame," which speaks to the difficulty most drivers almost continually have every time they take to the 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval.

But if there's anyone who has indeed tamed the Lady at Darlington, it's Jeff Gordon.

In 33 career starts there, Gordon leads all active drivers with seven wins, just three short of tying David Pearson's all-time record of 10 wins there.

Gordon also has 19 top-five and three other top-10 finishes, which makes for a .667 success rate of finishing 10th or better. He also has four poles.

Thus far this season, Gordon has had an outstanding campaign. It's too bad that too few have recognized it.

While most race fans and media have been focused on guys like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and others, Gordon has quietly gone about his job and gotten off to one of the best seasons in his two-decade-plus career.

If you haven't been keeping track of Gordon's performance this season, he's had three top-fives, including a close runner-up finish to Joey Logano this past Monday at Texas.

And in the other four races?

Seventh and ninth place, along with a 12th and 13th.

No other driver has come close to that kind of race-in and race-out type of consistency.

Is it any wonder that, even without a win, Gordon is atop the Sprint Cup standings heading into Darlington?

Apr 5, 2014; Fort Worth, TX, USA; Sprint Cup Series driver Jeff Gordon (24) speaks to the media during practice for the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Oh, you didn't know that? Well, it's true.

Gordon has been consistent, has flown under the radar and has been quietly doing his thing with perhaps the strongest effort to start a season that he's shown in probably the past five seasons.

Frankly, the Jeff Gordon we're watching in 2014 is looking a lot like the same Jeff Gordon who not only has four Sprint Cup championships to his credit, but who also last looked this strong in 2009, when he finished third in the final standings.

Speaking of that 2009 season, Gordon had just one win the entire year. But he also had 16 top-five and 25 top-10 finishes.

What's the similarity between that season and 2014? Consistency. While he had a car to win Monday at Texas (which was the only win he had in 2009, by the way), he still came away with the next-best finish.

And just like the majority of 2009, when Gordon hasn't had a car good enough to win in some of the other first seven races this season, he's used his veteran savvy and experience to get as good of a finish as he could—something that he has struggled to do at times in recent seasons.

There's also something else to consider: If Gordon were to win Saturday night at Darlington, he would become the eighth different winner in the Sprint Cup Series thus far this season.

But more importantly, at this stage of his career when wins are more precious than they've ever been, the combination of what he's done thus far in 2014, coupled with the hopes he still has of winning a fifth career Cup title and even going out on top is plenty of incentive for him to will himself to actually go out and do it.

You might say Jeff Gordon has been on a mission thus far in 2014, and it's likely a mission that will continue going forward.

But if there were ever a perfect place for him to finally earn that first win of 2014 and show some of the doubters that he still has what he once had when he was winning four championships or 56 races between 1995 and 2001 (including a career-best 13 wins in 1998), Saturday night is the right night and Darlington is the right place.

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