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Gordon's latest runs have him on everyone's mind

August 10, 2012, Seth Livingstone, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- The sleeping giant is very much awake.

With his victory at Pocono Raceway last weekend, Jeff Gordon has become the talk of the Sprint Cup garage. Teammates and competitors respect just how dangerous Gordon could be if he can work his way into the Chase via the wild-card system.

"It was great to get that win. That definitely gives us a shot at it, but now we've got to come here and focus on getting the job done here and the next four weeks. If we do our jobs right I think we can make it in."

--JEFF GORDON

But Gordon, sporting his black windbreaker on a rainy day at Watkins Glen, all but chuckled at the assertion that he'd become one of a handful of drivers the competition might fear.

"I think there are other guys they would be more worried about," Gordon said. "Jimmie Johnson is the guy you've got to worry about, I think, right now. And Dale [Earnhardt] Jr.-- I think that Junior has not maybe led as many laps, or won as many races as Jimmie, but there is a reason why they are where they are in the points. They've been consistently up front every weekend. They are rock-solid.

"You have to look at Hendrick as a whole. But I think it would be hard not to be a little nervous about Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and that No. 48 team right now, as dominant as they have been, and as strong as they have been. You get them in the Chase with that kind of performance, and I would think they'd be at the top of anybody's worry list."

Despite sitting pretty with three wins, Johnson isn't so sure that Gordon, a four-time series champ who turned 41 last week, won't be a driver to beat. He knows one thing: Gordon might sneak in via the wild card, but he won't sneak up on anybody.

"I feel the garage area knows how strong the No. 24 has been," Johnson said. "Chase-related, the garage is much more concerned about him and they should be. He's a great driver, [with a] great team and they are plenty capable of winning the championship.

"Until he had the win I don't think people paid a lot of attention to it. Momentum seemed to be against him in a lot of ways. Maybe people weren't paying attention. But now, they will. You cannot count that No. 24 out. I guess, deep down inside, I've always expected the No. 24 to be in the Chase so it hasn't changed anything for me."

Matt Kenseth, second in points heading into Sunday's Finger Lakes 355 at Watkins Glen, says he wouldn't discount Gordon or any of the Hendrick Motorsports cars in the Chase.

"There are some [cars] you worry about more than others," he said. "Certainly, all four Hendrick teams are ones that you have to worry about or watch out for. As good as that organization runs, all four of those cars have won, so they've proven they're all capable of getting on a run and being championship contenders."

Points leader Earnhardt thought it was only a matter of time before Gordon broke though. With five races to go before the Chase field is set, Gordon and teammate Kasey Kahne [two wins] hold the wild-card positions as the leaders in victories, then points, among drivers not ranked in the top 10.

"I've felt like since the beginning of the year, right at the start, the No. 5 [Kahne] and the No. 24 were rocket fast," Earnhardt said. "I thought they had the most speed that I saw in the garage when we would go to places like Phoenix. They've been that quick all year and Jeff has just had this terrible luck. When you really watch every practice lap like I do, we're all trying to figure out who has the best average in practice, and who has the best [or] the least amount of fall-off. You do this every single week, and Jeff and the No. 5 car are always near the top of those lists as the best performing cars throughout practice and throughout the weekend.

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"I always felt Jeff would find a way to get in because he just always has been able to accomplish whatever he wants. Both of those teams are contenders, just because of their ability to be fast. Speed is No. 1 on your list when you're wanting to pick attributes for a strong race team. They've definitely got it."

Despite his lack of victories prior to Pocono, Gordon has felt good about his car's ability to compete. He said crew chief Alan Gustafson has been instrumental in keeping the team's spirits high.

"Alan and I always seem to be on the same page," Gordon said. "Over the off season we just made a commitment to one another that we were after the same goals. We enjoy working with one another and believe in one another through thick and thin. I mean we might have had a couple of glasses of wine while that conversation was happening, but we meant what we said. Certainly at that point we didn't realize we were going to be challenged quite the way we have been this year."

Gordon admits that early results this season might have led to a shakeup at Hendrick had the car not been performing so well. All that was missing was results.

Gordon led 329 laps at Martinsville but finished 14th. He earned the pole at Talladega and finished 33rd. Leading 60 laps at Dover was nice, but the 13th-place result, not so much.

"Sometimes when things aren't going your way you start to question," Gordon said. "'Is this a test that we have to pass or is this a sign that this isn't the right combination?' I think if we hadn't performed as well as we have this year where we've had really fast race cars, I think there probably would have been a change."

Pocono put all that behind the 24 team.

"We put ourselves in the right place at the right time," Gordon said. "[I'm] not thinking a whole lot about the wild card because I just think there is far too much racing left to go. It was great to get that win. That definitely gives us a shot at it, but now we've got to come here and focus on getting the job done here and the next four weeks. If we do our jobs right I think we can make it in."