New rules. Old winner.
With a new gear rule handed down by NASCAR forcing drivers to once again shift while navigating the "tricky triangle" at Pocono Raceway, experience was sure to be the deciding factor in the outcome of Sunday's 5-Hour Energy 500.
Few drivers are as experienced as four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon, and that experience paid off.
Sunday's win—Gordon's fifth at Pocono and first since 2007—was win career win 84 for Gordon. Coupled with his win earlier this season at Phoenix, he is virtually locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup and a shot at a fifth championship.
Gordon also joined Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch as the only multiple winners in 2011.
Gordon's place in history
Gordon's 84 wins puts him in a third place tie with Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison on NASCAR's career victory list behind Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105).
More importantly, Gordon now has the shot to join teammate Jimmie Johnson as a five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.
Will Jeff Gordon win his fifth Cup championship in 2011
With or without that fifth championship, Gordon remains the best driver of his generation.
What may become of 2011
Gordon also finds himself in a unique spot for the next 12 races.
With a spot in the Chase all but guaranteed, he and crew chief Alan Gustafson can focus on two things: winning and testing for a championship run.
By virtue of having two wins, Gordon would start the Chase just 10 points behind Kevin Harvick right now—Harvick has three victories this season.
Not having to worry about points and making it into the top 10 in the standings, Gordon and Gustafson now are allowed the freedom to take more risks late in races.
Whether it is fuel mileage, two tires, no tires or staying out while others pit, the options on Gordon's table are far more open than for other drivers struggling to ensure good point totals.
Testing new things while the races are going on also will allow Gordon to gain an advantage over his competitors when crunch time comes later this fall.
Gustafson can throw different things at the car to see how it might react knowing Gordon can accept a middle-of-the-pack finish. New ideas, setups and car configurations can be tried without fear of having a bad points day.
If Gordon were to grab another win or two before the Chase starts, these early wins might just be the difference in claiming that elusive fifth title.