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Year in Review: Comeback season didn't have finish Gordon wanted

December 16, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Jeff Gordon won multiple races for the first time since '07, and broke loose in Vegas. But it wasn't the year he wanted. (Getty Images)

Year in Review: Comeback season didn't have quite the finish Gordon wanted

For Jeff Gordon it was a season of comebacks, marked by a streak-snapping victory, a record-making victory, and a little bit of breakdancing on stage during Champion's Week. But the four-time champion's best campaign in years was also tinged with a little wistfulness over what might have been.

2011 statistics

WinsFirst 26 Final 10
Top-fives103
Top-10s144
Poles10
DNFs21
Laps led644278
Avg. start13.616.5
Avg. finish11.616.8

Gordon won three races, claiming multiple victories for the first time since 2007, and positioned himself as a major player in the Sprint Cup championship field as the playoff began. He snapped a 66-race winless skid with a victory at Phoenix in February, and recorded his 85th career win in September at Atlanta, a triumph that moved him behind only luminaries Richard Petty and David Pearson on the sport's all-time list. But Gordon also let a few other potential wins get away, and faded in the playoff to such an extent that he was only a bystander when Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart duked it out for the title in the season's final weekend.

"It's important to win races, because you have to have results," Gordon said. "You don't have results, it's hard to ever get back to where you need to. The longer you go without winning, the harder it is, and that's why [we] made big changes .... At the same time, I feel like Alan Gustafson is one of the best crew chiefs in the garage, and we should have won more than three races, and really been up there battling for the championship."

Gordon and Gustafson were paired together following the 2010 season as part of a sweeping personnel realignment at Hendrick Motorsports, and the union paid dividends almost immediately. In the second week of the season, Gordon passed Kyle Busch with eight laps remaining and went on to win at Phoenix, scoring his first victory since early in the 2009 campaign, and snapping a 66-race winless skid in the process.

"It feels so amazing. I can't tell you how amazing this feels," he said then. "It's been a long time, I know, and I'm going to savor this one so much."

Gordon would go on to win two more times in 2011, recording multiple victories for the first time since a 2007 season in which he nearly won a fifth championship. At Pocono in June, he rolled to victory after top contenders Denny Hamlin and Edwards fell out of the race with mechanical trouble. And then came the capper at Atlanta, when after a two-day delay because of Tropical Storm Lee, Gordon held off Jimmie Johnson to claim his 85th career win and take sole possession of third place on NASCAR's all-time win list.

"With the kind of day we had, the kind of year we're having, I feel rejuvenated," Gordon said then.

And yet, those feelings would ultimately be tempered by what was left on the table. Gordon was the class of the Brickyard 400 in August, but his attempt to claim that race for a fifth time was derailed when Paul Menard stayed out of the pits and won on a long fuel run, barely holding off a charging Gordon at the end. And then there was the second Chase race at New Hampshire, when Gordon again had a chance to win, but unexpectedly ran out of gas and settled for fourth despite leading 78 laps.

Of those two that got away, Indy unquestionably stung the most. "It certainly was earned by Paul Menard. He did a great job, they had a great strategy," Gordon said. "But we had such a great car that day, and it's the Brickyard 400, a race that means so much. So to be the best car out there and come up a little bit short was a disappointment. And then New Hampshire, it was in the Chase. I figured it was important for us to get some momentum after our race in Chicago, and we had a 10-second lead and ran out of fuel when we didn't even think we were close to running out of fuel. So that was a disappointment."

New Hampshire was Gordon's last gasp. An engine failure at Kansas and a string of mediocre finishes relegated him to an eighth-place finish in final points, a definite disappointment for a driver whom many considered the favorite entering the Chase. In that regard, it was something of a bitter finish to Gordon's best season in four years.

Jeff Gordon: Notes-n-Nuggets

• Forty years old from Vallejo, Calif. Married to Ingrid Vandebosch, they have two children: Ella and Leo.
• Finished eighth in the standings in his 19th full-time season.
• Finished in the top 10 in the standings for the 17th time.
• Only finish outside the top 10 since 1994 was when he missed the 2005 Chase.
• Started the 2011 Chase in third place.
• Ended a 66-race winless streak at Phoenix in February.
• Three wins in 2011: Phoenix, Pocono and Atlanta.
• Scored his 85th career victory at Atlanta, surpassing Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for sole possession of 3rd all-time behind Petty and Pearson. Also third all-time in number of poles at 70.
• Season numbers: three wins, one pole, 13 top-fives, 18 top-10s, 922 laps led, three DNFs, finished on the lead lap 27 times, average finish of 13.0, 16.8 during the Chase.
• Four-time Cup champion: 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001; three time Daytona 500 winner.

"We had all the momentum. We were running good at so many different tracks," Gordon said. "I think we had everything it took coming into it. And yet, even with that, you still have to perform. And you can't make mistakes."

Watch all of Gordon's highlights from 2011 and flip through his year in photos below: