It's been a rough few years for Jeff Gordon.
After a dominant 2007 in which he won six races and scored an eye-popping 30 top 10's—but could not secure the championship—the past three years have been a hangover for Gordon and the No. 24 team.
With only one victory, at Texas in the spring of 2009, Gordon simply hasn't been up to par with teammate Jimmie Johnson—even though Gordon would be chasing his seventh title right now were there no Chase.
But never fear, Rainbow Warriors (am I dating myself with that term or what?).
Your driver isn't done winning races—at least I don't think so.
Need some reassurance?
Let me help you with that.
Gustafson comes to Gordon in the three-way crew chief swap performed by owner Rick Hendrick this offseason.
Say goodbye to Steve Letarte, the longtime whipping boy for Gordon fans, and say hello to the guy who used to run the No. 5 team.
Some folks believe that Gustafson is the best crew chief in the Hendrick Motorsports organization.
Yes, even better than Chad Knaus.
Gustafson took Kyle Busch, ill-fitting in the Hendrick organization, to the Chase multiple times, and nearly won the title in 2009 with Mark Martin. And if Martin was in the Chase this year, judging by the amount of points he scored over the final 10 races, he would have finished fifth.
Gordon could have used a Chase like that.
Flash back to 1998. Mark Martin is enjoying the greatest season of his Winston Cup career, winning seven events and scoring 26 top 10's.
It's a season worthy of the title almost any given season...except that Gordon won 13 races and relegated Martin to the third of his five career second-place finishes in Cup points.
Fast forward back to the present day, where the two are teammates at Hendrick Motorsports.
HMS has two shops—one where the teams of Gordon and his protege, Jimmie Johnson, call home, and another for Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s teams.
Except with the intra-organizational crew chief swap, the drivers will be the ones switching shops; in effect, Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. trade spaces, and the 24 and five work together this closely for the first time since Terry Labonte was challenging for titles in it.
It's a mad world.
Gordon has never been the traditional NASCAR driver as far as his personal initiatives and sponsors go.
He's never been sponsored by a beer, a cigarette, an energy drink—nothing without at least a touch of class.
Gordon's a driver whose charitable initiatives go above and beyond those of most of his peers.
So it only makes sense that Gordon would be the first driver in NASCAR history to receive a large sponsorship deal from a charitable organization—the Drive to End Hunger, an AARP-based program that will cover 22 of the No. 24's races in 2011.
You always want to win for your new sponsors, right?
Now that he's a father, Gordon's priorities in life have undoubtedly shifted.
The one constant is going out and trying to win races, but there's added incentive to perform for two more little members of the family.
Daughter Ella has seen Victory Lane before, but Gordon has only won three races since she was born in June 2007.
Meanwhile, son Leo, born this year, has never seen his dad win.
As the kids get older and can appreciate the moment a little more, you have to believe that their father will do everything he can to give them something memorable to take to grade school.
Gordon has never had much luck in the Chase, twice being foxed out of championships by its mere existence.
But if 2004 and 2007 (Chase finishes of third and second) were bitterly disappointing, Gordon's worst career Chase performance—ninth this year—has to be just as much.
Through the first four races, Gordon was sitting comfortably in fourth, only 85 points back of the lead, and a pole at Charlotte hinted at a big weekend for the No. 24 team.
Instead, he finished 23rd. Then at Martinsville, a track at which he normally dominates, he came home 20th.
It was all downhill from there.
Rest assured that Gordon won't let it happen next season.
Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have been a dynamic duo at Hendrick since the day the team signed Johnson to drive a fourth car. Sharing setups, information, and this year, personnel, the importance of Gordon to Johnson's career has been undeniable.
But this year, when Chad Knaus basically commandeered Gordon's crew for the final two races to make a charge for the championship, it was basically the last straw.
Think of it from Gordon's perspective.
You, too, were in the title hunt until you had a couple of bad breaks, and now you're getting your pit crew—perhaps the strongest within your organization—taken away from you because of that bad luck and your teammate's desire to win.
Yes, the title goes back to your shop anyway, but while they can call it a "248" title as much as they want, it's not so much the case.
Without that threat (or so he hopes) in 2011, Gordon can work on re-establishing himself as a lead driver at Hendrick, instead of taking the second seat in his own shop.
Ever seen these guys before? Their names are Kenny Francis and Kasey Kahne, and they'll be replacing Lance McGrew and Mark Martin as crew chief and driver of the No. 5 car in 2012, respectively.
This wouldn't much have mattered before Hendrick's realignment, but now, it means the world to Gordon.
Francis was, for years, identified as the only crew chief with big time potential at Evernham Motorsports, through its god-knows-how-many name changes.
Paired with Kahne, its best driver, the duo has been able to achieve some pretty solid results, and after a holding year at Team Red Bull, will join Gordon and Alan Gustafson.
This should be bad news for the rest of the NASCAR world.
A Gustafson-Francis alliance has the potential for innovation as successful (and unholy) as that of Knaus and Letarte.
And it just may propel the No. 24 and No. 5 teams to the top of the ladder.
Gordon is one of a few top-flight Sprint Cup drivers who doesn't compete in the Nationwide Series, even in a limited schedule.
Unlike a majority of his peers, Gordon doesn't spend time racing on Saturday, and hasn't since 2000.
As NASCAR attempts to give the Nationwide Series its own identity, introducing different cars to the sport and disallowing Cup drivers to race for its points championship, it may be a shrewd move.
Yes, Gordon misses out on some valuable track time.
Yes, it's admirable that these young drivers want to race as much as they can.
But name me a driver who's taken both championships in the same year.
It detracts from their focus on the series that really matters, and it will only be less valuable in the future to double-dip on a regular basis.
While the other drivers in effect waste their time, Gordon will be ready for Sunday.
The plight of the old racer is one of difficulty and disappointment.
Drivers will retire when they feel like there's nothing left in the tank or they're no longer competitive, but coming to terms with that—or accurately pinpointing when they've crossed that line—is difficult.
Gordon, though, has always been one of the smartest drivers in the sport.
If he was done, he'd be gone.
If he hadn't rehabilitated his back to the point where he felt he could still drive competitively, he'd be gone.
If he had no desire to do anything but be a full-time father to his kids at home, he'd be gone.
But he's not gone.
What does that tell you?
This was awesome.
Need I say more?