Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart: Who Has a Shot at a Return to NASCAR Glory in 2011?
Jeff Gordon is a four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. Tony Stewart is a two-time champion.
They both have a place among the greats in the sport's history and both undoubtedly will find their way into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Both Gordon and Stewart have more than just their other competitors chasing them, though.
Time may be their most powerful pursuer.
Both Gordon and Stewart turn 40 this season and they have watched for the last five years as Jimmie Johnson has pushed both of them to the shadows en route to Johnson's unprecedented dominance.
Here's a look at some factors that could impact whether one of them could return to the top of the Sprint Cup mountain in 2011.
The "Driver Swap" at Hendrick Motorsports
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Alan Gustafson inherits Jeff Gordon in the shuffle at Hendrick Motorsports that moved three of four drivers to different operations for 2011. Only the Chad Knaus-plus-Jimmie Johnson pairing remains intact.
Gordon could be the big winner in the move.
Gordon has struggled with the Chase format and limped home to a ninth-place finish in 2010 with Steve Letarte on his pit box.
For 2011, Gordon moves over to the team that formerly supported Mark Martin and shepherded him to a second-place points finish in 2009.
The move could be the breath of fresh air that revitalizes the four-time champ.
Consistency at Crew Chief for Stewart
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Darian Grubb enters his third year paired with Tony Stewart for 2011.
After posting two wins and a seventh-place points finish for 2010, the duo seems ready to take the next step.
Outside of Jimmie Johnson, Stewart was the highest-finishing driver under the umbrella of Hendrick Motorsports equipment and support in the Chase.
As the equipment undoubtedly improves in 2011, Stewart should be able to make a competitive leap.
The No-Win Streak Has to End for Gordon
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For those who remember the 1990s, it's hard to imagine it's been nearly two years since Jeff Gordon's last win, in April of 2009 at Texas.
It represents a span of more than 60 races.
In 2010 he posted 11 top-five finishes and only failed to finish four events, but the lack of wins put Gordon at a tremendous disadvantage once the Chase began.
New crew chief Alan Gustafson knows that in order to position his driver for the Chase, he has to notch wins and gain the bonus points to start the Chase near the top of the standings.
When everyone in the Chase runs as well as they do, it's difficult to make up ground you gave up at the reset.
Gordon has to find the hunger to return to his dominant form to win another championship.
Stewart Must Run Better in the Chase
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While Tony Stewart managed to come up with a win in the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup, it was one of only two top fives and one of only three top 10s.
Five times in the 2010 Chase, Stewart failed to finish in the top 20.
His average Chase finish of 16.2 will have to improve if he expects to have a shot.
Despite his win at Fontana in October, Stewart faded badly in the Chase and wasn't even in the conversation with the top contenders.
Like Gordon, Stewart needs to figure out how to win in order to be a serious threat. And to win, he needs to be better positioned.
Running outside the top 20 in five of the last 10 races simply won't win a championship, no matter how many bonus points he accumulates in the first 26 events.
Gordon Must Unravel the Mystery of the Chase
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In 2001, Jeff Gordon won his last championship. It was long before anyone had even thought of the Chase or any other playoff-style format for NASCAR's top division.
Since then, the Chase hasn't treated him kindly. Without it, he would have won the 2004 and 2007 titles.
He's watched huge points leads evaporate on a Saturday night after Richmond. He has to have considered how differently his career would be viewed with six titles instead of four.
His best Chase finish was second place in 2007, his last multiple-win season, when he found his way to victory lane six times.
Gordon has to find a way to concentrate his extraordinary talent into those last 10 races, but not at the expense of the bonus points available for winning during the first 26 events.
This year he must start to find the balance between running well enough to make the Chase, winning enough to get the bonus points and finishing strong enough to win the title.
Stewart Has Proven He Can Capture the Chase Prize
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Unlike Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart has proven that he can win a title under NASCAR's playoff format.
In 2005, he won five times en route to his second championship.
The format has been altered since then, but the delicate formula for the teams and drivers remains the same.
The balance between success during the regular season and top five and 10 finishes during the Chase will always be a winning formula.
If you can simply run well week after week in the Chase, there's a good chance the other chasers will falter.
Stewart only finished outside the top 20 once during the Chase run in 2005 and finished in the top five on four separate occasions, including two wins.
The wins mean a great deal, but possibly just as importantly, he found that the key to winning the title is minimizing the bad runs. It's a lesson he's forgotten since then, as evidenced by his 2010 Chase performance, but he knows the way back.
Father Time Is Chasing Gordon
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Things have changed for Jeff Gordon since his dominance of the 1990s. Many of the drivers he battled for championships aren't even in the field anymore.
The last time a driver over 40 won a Sprint Cup title was Dale Jarrett back in 1999.
Gordon knows the clock is running and there may not be that many great seasons left.
His teammate Mark Martin is the exception, not the rule.
If Gordon's back problems persist, it may not be long before he seriously considers retirement. Regardless of whether he wins another title or not, history will judge his career kindly.
Tony Stewart Faces a Closing Window of Opportunity
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Tony Stewart is no longer the baby-faced former IndyCar star that stepped into the NASCAR world in the 1990s.
He's been around the block a few times now and he sees guys nearly half his age challenging him in the Sprint Cup Series.
As he approaches 40, Stewart knows that time is no longer on his side to be a multiple-time champion again.
Like Gordon, he knows that the next great run could be his last. Expect him to make it count.
NASCAR seems to lend itself to great stories. There aren't many that would be more compelling for 2011 than to see two of the sport's most revered current stars return to glory again.
Both of their careers deserve it.