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Caraviello: For Gordon in 2012, wins alone won't be good enough

January 04, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Sprint Cup still eludes champion whose last title came prior to the Chase era

Only a few of the countless awards and mementos Jeff Gordon has accumulated over the course of his illustrious racing career make the cut to appear in the trophy case at his home. There are the four cups commemorating his NASCAR championships, his three Daytona 500 trophies, the quartet of gold bricks signifying Brickyard 400 victories. There are a pair of the gold cars given to each champion by tire manufacturer Goodyear, and a few select helmets. Everything else is over at Hendrick Motorsports, either at Gordon's office or on display in the shop.

One thing is missing -- a sterling silver Sprint Cup, Gordon's great white whale, the single award that has somehow eluded a champion whose last title came prior to the Chase era. Gordon has won just about everything else there is to win in NASCAR, including race victories at every individual track save Homestead-Miami Speedway, and amassed enough trips to Victory Lane to place him third all-time behind only Richard Petty and David Pearson. But that fifth championship, that first Chase victory, that long-sought-after Sprint Cup, remain out there, driving him as aggressively as he drives that No. 24 car.

Gordon and Gustafson. (Getty)

"Our second year together, we're going to show how good we really are."

--JEFF GORDON

2011 statistics

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

As 2012 dawns, though, there might be reason to believe that Gordon may need to clear some room on his home trophy case come November. For the first time in half a decade, Gordon enters a season with seemingly all the pieces in place to make a real run at NASCAR's biggest prize, and end an 11-year drought dating back to his fourth and most recent title in 2001. His three victories in 2011 represent his most significant output since 2007, when he won six times and dominated the regular season before Jimmie Johnson muscled him out of the way with two races left in the Chase. Gordon was in the mix from beginning to end last year, often a factor even races he didn't win, and left probably another three victories on the table. Perhaps most importantly, he and Alan Gustafson have a full year together, and enter this season not getting to know one another, but knowing with it takes to win.

"I really have such a strong belief and confidence in Alan, and the way his engineers go about processing the information. I love that," Gordon said recently. "Their confidence in me really was a boost for me, as well as those three wins. There's no doubt that the Chase was a disappointment, and we've got to take those last couple of races -- Texas and Homestead -- and build on that. Yeah, we've got work to do, but we have a great race team. There's no doubt, we can be a threat for the championship [this] year."

He really is in something of a promising position, having finished a disappointing eighth in 2011 despite entering the Chase as the No. 3 seed. There's a reason so many teams that finish high in the standings often fall off the following year -- they get static, hesitant to change what appears to be working, while everyone else in the garage is trying new and different approaches capable of altering the face of competition when everyone arrives back in Daytona the next season. As good as the No. 24 team was for much of last year, finishing eighth does not afford a program an opportunity to sit still, and the intense Gustafson is not one to be satisfied with the status quo.

"Our second year together," Gordon said, "we're going to show how good we really are."

There's enough performance from last season to know that Gordon's cars can be fast and the wins can potentially come in bunches, enough bitterness to force the No. 24 team to focus on those areas -- hello, fuel mileage -- where it sometimes literally came up short in the previous year. That's not a bad place to be, a position that affords just enough confidence and demands just enough drive, where a little push here or there might be just what makes the difference between a head-shaking finish like the one Gordon endured last season, and raising that silver cup in South Florida. Think about it: if Gordon doesn't run out of fuel in races at Indianapolis and New Hampshire where he had dominant cars, if he gets the top-10 he was headed for instead of running dry at Chicagoland, if his engine doesn't blow at Kansas ... well, maybe Tony Stewart's miracle title run never happens. Little things indeed can mean a lot.

"That's what was disappointing," Gordon said. "I know [Brad] Keselowski had momentum as well, but we came into the Chase with tremendous confidence and momentum, and I really thought we were going to get it done. It's disappointing we didn't run better. We knew there were a couple of tracks -- Dover, maybe Texas -- that we were going to struggle at. But we did not expect to struggle at Chicago. And then we give away the win at New Hampshire. Blow up at Kansas. ... Things have to go right. That's what's amazing when you look at a five-time champion like Jimmie, you look at what Tony and Carl [Edwards] did in this Chase. A 4.9 average finish for 10 races? That's amazing."

Yet that average wasn't good enough for Edwards to win the title, evidence that things can go almost completely right, and still leave a team empty-handed at the end. For Gordon, though, the what-ifs and could-have-beens from 2011 are eclipsed by what was very much a career renaissance for a 40-year-old driver who entered the season with a long losing skid, a new crew chief, a few more gray hairs and plenty of questions over whether he would ever win again. Even with the disappointing finish, this most recent campaign served as a confidence booster for a driver who is now very motivated to see what he can achieve in 2012. There is no more losing streak; that 66-race skid ended at Phoenix, the second week of last year. The feeling-out period between him and Gustafson is long over. There are no more questions over whether he can still win.

"What we do have is, we won three races. We won more races than anybody at Hendrick. And we showed at times we can have what it takes to win this championship," Gordon said. "And I think that's what we take through this offseason and build on and try to take it to that next level."

And at that level, though, the aspirations change. The bar has been set, and Gordon believes he and his crew chief have what it takes to push Stewart, Johnson, Edwards, and other top contenders for the championship in 2012. In and of itself, winning three times is something to celebrate in a rebound season, in a transition year, even with that frustrating fade in the standings during the Chase. Not this year. This year, the aim is higher -- a new trophy for the case back home -- and similar results will not be viewed as favorably. Just winning races, especially after a long drought, was once good enough. It isn't anymore.

"You always say, 'Oh, I think we can do it.' But you don't really know," Gordon said. "This year ... we go into it knowing, it is within our reach. We plan on going for that championship and battling for it. And if we don't, even if we win three, four, five races, it's going to be far more disappointing than [last] year."

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

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.