How Jeff Gordon Is Quietly Having a Hot Start to the 2014 Sprint Cup Season

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistMarch 21, 2014

There's a good reason Jeff Gordon is smiling. Wouldn't you be, too, with the season start he's had thus far in 2014?
There's a good reason Jeff Gordon is smiling. Wouldn't you be, too, with the season start he's had thus far in 2014?Jim Topper/Associated Press

Pop quiz: Where is Jeff Gordon in the Sprint Cup standings heading into this Sunday's race at Auto Club Speedway?

I can imagine some of you scratching your head, stroking your chin, clearing your throat and quietly asking yourself, "Um, err, yeah, where IS he at?"

Some of you might say maybe eighth or ninth. Others might say he's 15th. Others would have absolutely no clue.

With so much fan and media attention focused on guys like Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., Las Vegas winner and Sprint Cup points leader Brad Keselowski and teammate Joey Logano, and Carl Edwards after this past Sunday's win at Bristol, a certain four-time Cup champion has kind of gotten lost in the shuffle.

Or another way to say it is that Gordon has flown so far under the radar that he's been virtually undetectable.

And now, here's the answer to the pop quiz.

Fair warning, brace yourself (and no peeking at the standings): Gordon heads into Sunday's race at Auto Club Speedway a solid THIRD in the standings (tied with Edwards), 11 points behind Keselowski and just one point behind second-ranked Earnhardt.

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Gordon has been almost as outstanding thus far in 2014 as Earnhardt and Keselowski. He just doesn't have a win yet—but it's coming, and coming soon, I predict.

In the first four races, Gordon has finished fourth (Daytona), fifth (Phoenix), ninth (Las Vegas) and seventh (Bristol).

Do the math, and Gordon's average finish in each of the first four races is 6.2, second best in Sprint Cup. Hard as it may seem to believe, that's better than Earnhardt (7.2) and right behind Keselowski (5.2).

And heading in Sunday's race at Fontana, Gordon has a great chance to grab his first win of 2014 at a track where in 24 career starts he has three wins and 11 top-10 finishes.

Perhaps one of the reasons Gordon is doing so well is so little attention has been paid to him thus far.

He hasn't had the huge crowds following him every week, like Earnhardt.

He hasn't had reporters constantly asking him what they've been asking Keselowski: Was his 2012 Sprint Cup championship or last season, when he failed to even make the Chase, the real fluke year?

And perhaps most importantly, he hasn't had week-in and week-out pressure. If anything, he's having more fun than he's had in a long time.

Like a diligent worker bee, Gordon has just been going about his job, doing it in fine fashion, as he seems intent on finally breaking Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson's stranglehold on championships: six in the last eight seasons.

Gordon turns 43 in August. He hasn't won a championship since 2001. He's managed just six total wins in the last six-plus years, equal to the six wins he had in just the 2007 season alone.

Based upon those statistics, one could make a case that Gordon's best years—like 1995 through 1998, when he won 40 races, three championships and finished runner-up in the other year—are behind him.

But at the same time, you'd be hard-pressed to find a driver still as competitive and determined to win as Gordon. He doesn't have to keep racing. He could easily have retired several years ago, surely before he turned 40 in 2011.

NASCAR needs Gordon more than Gordon needs NASCAR. But with the hope that he still has one more Cup championship in him, he's continued to soldier on, year after year.

Admittedly, 2010 through 2012 would have been perfect excuse years for Gordon to say goodbye. He finished ninth in 2010, eighth in 2011 and 10th in 2012, the third-worst season finish of his career.

But a funny thing happened after that: He finished sixth last season and seemed to find further re-invigoration to stay on task and stay behind the wheel of the No. 24 Chevrolet.

Maybe he finally got tired of seeing Johnson win his sixth championship in 2012.

It might have been that Gordon was ticked off at himself for having just eight top-five finishes (including one win) in 2013, his worst total since eight top-fives in 2005.

The key difference, though, is Gordon had four wins as part of those eight top-fives in '05, while just one win in '13.

If you ever get a chance to spend time around him, you'd quickly learn how proud Gordon is. He's proud of his wife, his children, his team, his sport and all the achievements he's attained.

But he's also proud to still be someone whom no one is willing to count out as either a potential race winner or potential fifth-time champion. He actually thrives on it—and it's likely one of the biggest things that keeps him going.

If Gordon were to win championship No. 5 this season, it's likely few would blame him if he retired, choosing to go out on top.

And that may very well be Gordon's true motivation over the last few years. Deep down inside, he must have a feeling that he not only still has enough in his tank to beat Johnson and younger upstarts like Keselowski, but that the desire for that fifth championship trophy is as strong today as it was when he won his first in 1995.

Admittedly, Gordon has also had more than his share of bad luck and problems over the last several years than any of his peers. Trying to come up with another driver who has been beset by such a bad run of luck is difficult.

Still, Gordon keeps going. It almost seems like he's enjoying being out of the spotlight, because in a strange way, the dimmer the spotlight is, the brighter his performance seems to be.

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

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