Focused: Jeff Gordon in game face mode during a practice session for the Oct. 10, 2010 running of the Pepsi MAX 400 at Auto Club Speedway.
It's been a promise that's remained unfulfilled since 2002, when Jeff Gordon and his associates launched his "Drive for Five" campaign, a slogan regarding the Vallejo, Calif. native's attempts to win a fifth NASCAR championship.
He's been close to capturing that fifth title on two occasions, specifically in 2004 and 2007, when his team was the most consistent but just not the fastest when it all mattered in the Sprint for the Sprint Cup title.
And then there are those seasons in which he's just had to seek for respectability despite an otherwise off year.
With distractions on and off-the-track in his life in the '02 season, Gordon slipped from the top of the stock car world to an almost human fourth place points finish. While considered a great year for most racers (three wins, including a sixth Southern 500 win), for the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet team, anything short of a championship is a disappointing year.
The following year brought more of the same circumstances, winning three more races and finishing fourth in the standings, with Gordon's biggest highlight being his Saturday Night Live appearance as a guest host for the popular NBC program.
Gordon's had his shots at capturing that elusive championship, but it's like a Wily E. Coyote cartoon or the Trix Bunny trying to get his box of cereal—so close, yet denied at the last moment.
Bring up the '04 and '07 season to a Gordon fan and it would be like asking a Buffalo Bills fan about those four consecutive Super Bowl appearances in the 1990s—at the big game but denied the biggest prize in all of sports.
However, this year has been everything but predictable for the 39-year-old veteran. At times, he and his Steve Letarte-led team have looked like one of the best teams on the circuit, leading laps and running among the lead pack of cars. There were opportunities to bag victories, such as at Martinsville, Phoenix, Texas, Talladega, Richmond, Daytona and Chicagoland.
And then there are those moments where they're just off by just enough of a margin to struggle on race day. Efforts like at the June race at Pocono, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol, Emory Healthcare 500 at Atlanta and Air Force 400 at Richmond have shown the team's weaknesses in terms of adjusting an ill-handling mount to the team's ineffectiveness to battle through adversity.
Call it whatever you want, be it a case of the "Jekyll and Hyde" syndrome or the "on/off switch," and either way, it's a case of multiple identities for the No. 24 team, one that has ultimately redefined what it means to succeed in NASCAR racing.
Overlooked in the days prior to the kickoff race for the Sprint Cup Chase, most fans and the press pointed to Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin as the favorites to win the title. And why not? They were the two most dominant racers in the regular season, with both racers capturing six races and sitting atop the first two spots in the Chase rundown.
While Johnson has worked his way to the front of the pack and Hamlin sits second, 36 markers from being in the captain's chair, lurking in fourth, just 85 points from the front of the train is Jeff Gordon, whose title hopes were about over with 20 laps remaining in last Sunday's Pepsi MAX 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
Pushing his No. 24 Chevrolet just a bit over the speed limit near the end of the race, NASCAR officials nailed Gordon with a speeding violation, thus sending him to the tail end of the lead pack with just over 40 laps to go.
With a victory out of the question, the only thing that this team could pull out was a solid salvageable finish to cap off an eventful Sunday afternoon. Despite some close calls near the end of the race, particularly the Kurt Busch crash that he just missed, the wily veteran was able to pick and pull his way through the competitive field to place ninth in the 400-miler, a moral victory for the 82-time race winner.
"It wasn't the kind of day we were hoping for," Gordon said following the race. "Things are going pretty well for us and we're hanging in there but honestly I think we were anywhere from a third to a fifth-place car, so to come home ninth, there's no doubt, we need to get better. There's no doubt. We've got to get better."
Words spoken like a true champion, a winner knows when they have to be at their absolute best. Sure, they could be content in their performance, having run in the top-five for the majority of the 200-lap event, which meant running with the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, and Kevin Harvick. However, the finish did not translate into a result that mirrored their run, which meant a bit of a lost opportunity in capturing maximum points.
At the end of the day, there's still a reason to believe that a fifth title is within reach for Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte. After all, his drive from 24th to ninth in the last 20 laps was a page out of vintage Gordon, the one who raced on rails, determined to drive the wheels off his Chevrolet to win a race.
A winning attitude, spirit, and resolve, do not count out the No. 24 team from this year's title race—even with the Cup series heading to another "house that Jimmie Johnson built," if there's any driver more determined and focused in dethroning the El Cajon, Calif. hero from extending his historical reign in stock car racing, look no further than the man once called "Wonderboy."
After all, as Jeff Gordon once said when asked about his take on NASCAR racing, "There's nothing like confidence and believing in our minds. We can go to every race track and be a contender."
Author's Note: For more of my thoughts on racing, from the elite stock car arenas of NASCAR to the grassroots levels of stock car and open wheel racing, check out my blog, "The Podium Finish!"