Jeff Gordon is clearly at the top of his game.
Using both determination and his experience—a combination far more powerful than the 850 horsepower under the hood of his race car—Gordon muscled past a much younger Joey Logano on a final restart to win the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
Having just turned 43, an age when many NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers start thinking of retirement, he’s not lost anything. On the contrary, his victory Sunday places him solidly at the top of a list of favorites for the 2014 Sprint Cup championship.
For sports fans, there is nothing more enjoyable than watching a master at work, plying his craft in a way that only a veteran like Gordon is capable of doing.
“That last restart was it,” said Gordon in a post-race interview. “We had the car to win. Our car was amazing. But whoever got out in front had such a huge advantage.”
On earlier restarts, Logano's antics at one point infuriated Gordon, whose complaining to crew chief Alan Gustafson on the team radio was so spicy that much of it had to be bleeped out of the television broadcast.
Gordon’s years of experience have taught him that while he had the car to beat Logano, he would not do it while using up his equipment racing him side by side. That’s something a younger, less experienced driver would do. Instead, Gordon knew it would take a restart to gain the lead, and once there, he was confident he could maintain it.
“Well, there's got to be some advantages to being 43 out there,” said Gordon in the post-race press conference. “I would hope being more patient and using your head a little bit more would be one of them.”
And maybe it was also his frustration with Logano’s shenanigans that made Gordon so determined to take command on that final restart with 17 laps remaining.
“As a driver, especially somebody that's been getting beat up over the years about restarts, it's pretty nice to have the last two wins come down to restarts,” said Gordon in a post-race interview on pit road. “Joey was so aggressive and good on the restarts. His car could really take off.”
Only a few weeks ago, Gordon faced a similar situation. With 17 laps remaining, he made what he later described as “the restart of my life” to win his record-setting fifth Brickyard 400.
The impact of that win at Indianapolis three weeks ago set this Hendrick Motorsports team on a trajectory of greatness. This win has placed it on the brief and very exclusive "threat to win" list every week, a list that includes Brad Keselowski, Logano, Kevin Harvick and his teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But it’s not all been wine and roses. This team had a difficult start to the 2014 season.
In the first 10 races, Gordon had shown speed and promise, but there was one frustration after another. While he was scoring top-10 finishes, it seemed as though he just couldn’t close the deal and get that critical first victory.
Then at Kansas in May, it all came together. The team found the handle, and it has not let go ever since. It's amassed a total of nine top-10 finishes within a span of 13 races, including three wins. This is a team that is already in championship form even before it gets to the Chase.
“As I told you before the race started, our Chase has already started,” Gordon told ESPN in his post-race televised Victory Lane interview. “This team is championship-caliber, but we have a lot of work to do.”
Crew Chief Gustafson deserves much of the credit for the team’s winning attitude. In early May, when Gustafson talked to Bleacher Report, he knew that first win was just around the corner, and once it came, the confidence it would bring to the team would prove to be invaluable.
“Once we start winning, the wins will continue,” Gustafson told Bleacher Report. “I think the thing that I’ve learned in my experience over the years is that you have to be relentless. You have to maintain a very positive and optimistic outlook.”
And they have.
His team members could have let the disappointment of having been sidelined by an electrical issue at Watkins Glen hold them back this week. Instead, it vaulted them into a win.
This is unquestionably the group that the other 15 teams eligible for Chase competition are aiming for.
Gordon demonstrated the confidence that only a veteran would show in making the pass for the lead, holding his line as he cleared Logano to take a race lead that he never relinquished.
Just a couple of years ago, there was serious talk of when Gordon would retire from racing. Much of it stemmed from Gordon expressing his frustration with an inability to get it done on the race track. Many questioned whether the four-time champion still had the drive to win.
All that talk has evaporated. His cars are better, and the team is under the kind of leadership that gives Gordon the confidence to do what he wants on the race track.
It’s now apparent that the drive and desire to be the best and win that fifth championship has always been there, but it was muted because the cars and the team he needed to be around him weren’t.
“I'm confident in my car enough that I can put it in places I haven't been able to put it in the past and be a little bit more aggressive when it matters,” said Gordon.
He has the car and the team that can make a fifth championship a reality.
“When things go well and you get better, then you keep going down that path,” said Gordon. “I feel like we started on a good path at the start of the season, and we've continued to do that up to this point. I think it will even continue through the next 12 or 13 weeks.”
Teammate Jimmie Johnson may still be considered by the consensus to be the favorite, given his record in the Chase and his six titles, yet his No. 48 team is limping its way toward the Chase. Keselowski and Earnhardt Jr. could also be in this discussion, but neither has shown the drive and consistency of Gordon.
Gordon’s third victory and the commanding way in which it was accomplished has clearly positioned him as not only the driver to beat in these remaining three races before the start of the Chase but also as the favorite once the Chase begins.
And perhaps more importantly, it was a victory won on the value of experience.
Score one for the old guy.
All quotes are from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Bob Margolis is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association and has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent.
On Twitter: @BobMargolis