This time, Jeff Gordon was not to be denied.
There would be no tire going flat in sight of the checkered flag, no engine turning sour in the closing laps and no late caution flag to spoil his victory on Sunday in the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway, race No. 3 of the 2014 Chase.
Gordon, a fan favorite for decades and poised to make a run for the title this season, was in need of a win.
This win did more than automatically move him on to the next round, the Contender Round. It reiterated to the rest of the Chase field, temporarily distracted by back-to-back wins from Team Penske, that they had better not forget about this four-time champion who not only knows how to win races, but he also knows how to win championships.
“Wins aren't easy to get in this sport,” said Gordon in the post-race press conference. “You fight to get them; everybody does. I think it makes a statement in one sense of what type of a team we are, how hard we fight, how you never count us out. I think that it makes a statement that we're a team to beat for this championship.”
Gordon’s team owner, Rick Hendrick, has often joked this season that a rejuvenated Gordon has found a fountain of youth. He said it again on Sunday during a live ESPN post-race interview.
“He found the fountain of youth somewhere,” said Hendrick after the race. “I can remember back when he was winning 10 or 12 races a year, he didn’t get out of the car and jump on the roof and have as much fun in Victory Lane as he is right now. He’s really enjoying himself.”
It’s true Gordon has been racing with the drive and enthusiasm of someone much younger than his 43 years. His youthful vigor is fueled by a desire to win and the unequaled thrill that only a veteran driver who has been the King of the mountain before, can know and appreciate.
Given where this team has come from this season, Sunday’s victory tasted especially sweet.
The No. 24 team didn’t have the best of starts this season.
Led by a strong and savvy leader, crew chief Alan Gustafson, it fought through the difficult emotions of the opening races of the 2014 season, when weekend after weekend the team may have been the best in the field. Yet it seemed like there was always something—a failed tire, a late caution or a mechanical issue out of their control—that would keep Gordon from Victory Lane.
With every setback, however, the team got stronger and became more determined to win. And it showed. Gordon won three times during the regular season (Kansas, Indianapolis and Michigan) and sat atop the driver point standings for a good deal of the later half of the season.
A runner-up finish in the opening round of the Chase at Chicagoland two weeks ago, it once again was looking like this might be the year. Then, last weekend at Loudon, those late-race gremlins struck once more, and Gordon settled for a 26th-place finish.
But, as my colleague at ESPN.com John Oreovicz points out, "Gordon has finished lower than 20th four times this year. Each time, he won the next time out."
The stage was set for a comeback at Dover.
“I have to tell you,” Gordon said in a post-race interview, “Alan Gustafson and this whole No. 24 Drive To End Hunger team worked so hard this weekend. It was not an easy weekend. We just stuck together as a team.”
Quick and precise pit work and Gustafson making the right calls on adjustments gave Gordon a car that was ideal for long runs. And Sunday’s race had a lot of them, especially during the second half.
“We were pretty tough to beat. They just made great adjustments,” added Gordon.
Gordon couldn’t have found a better place than Dover for a must-win situation. His career record of five wins, 18 top fives and 25 top 10s at the high-banked one-mile oval made him an obvious pick to win, even though he hadn’t visited Victory Lane there since 2001.
Going in, the team had no illusions about winning. It’s always about the execution, and Gordon’s team is one of the best in the business. Hendrick Motorsports shared a photo of the winner:
“We knew this was going to be a pressure-packed race and a really tough track,” said crew chief Gustafson in his post-race press conference. “Dover is always—even when you're good here...it's a difficult racetrack to navigate. The track rubbers up, and then conditions change.
“We knew we had to be on our game, and we had to be focused, and we had to come together as a team and really work toward having a good run to transfer through. I think all that kind of came to fruition here and we were able to win the race.”
Even more important than this victory was for Gordon, Gustafson and the members of the No. 24 team who work at the track and back in the shop in Concord, North Carolina, it was a critical win for Hendrick Motorsports.
All four of its drivers made the Chase this year, but until now the organization’s teams have not been looked upon as odds-on favorites—despite having six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who finished third on Sunday, on its roster of drivers.
As easy as it is to characterize Sunday’s win as a must-win for Gordon, every race since the Chase began is a must-win, all the way to the finale in Homestead.
Passion, performance, execution and team leadership are what go into a Sprint Cup-winning driver and team.
Gordon has it all. And if he and his team put it all together, he may even have that elusive fifth Sprint Cup title.
All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Bob Margolis is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association and has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent.
On Twitter: @BobMargolis