Four-time Sprint Cup Series champion likes being under the radar
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Danica, Danica, Danica.
As far as Jeff Gordon is concerned, it’s a beautiful refrain. Because all the buzz around pole winner Danica Patrick over the past week at Daytona International Speedway has allowed the four-time NASCAR champion to quietly position himself as a prime contender for the Daytona 500.
“I think we’re in the best position to win the race,” Gordon said Saturday.
“Everybody’s kind of been under the radar, other than (Kevin) Harvick … but a great chance to win the Daytona 500. Obviously, Danica brings a lot of attention, and that’s good for our sport. But for us, we’re just doing our jobs, doing our thing, and we’ve got a great race car, great race team. It’s nice to be able to go about it without too much attention on us, too much expectation and hype, so there’s not any distractions.”
That’s certainly been the case these Speedweeks, as Gordon has lurked just below the headlines despite having consistently fast cars throughout the 10-day stretch. The “other” front-row starter for Sunday’s race hasn’t won one of the preliminary events at Daytona, and he hasn’t been fastest in any of the practices. But he’s always been right there, good enough to lead 38 laps in his Thursday qualifying race before being busted for a pit-road speeding violation, and to stand second-fastest behind Tony Stewart in Friday’s second practice session.
After that, Gordon parked his No. 24 car until Sunday, skipping final practice on Saturday.
“Based on how the 150 went, I feel like we’re very well prepared,” said Gordon, who won the most recent of his three Daytona 500 titles in 2005. “As prepared as we’ve been in a very long time for the 500.”
The Daytona 500, though, is only part of the goal for a team that endured a miserable start to the 2012 season that forced Gordon to pull off a miracle runner-up finish in September at Richmond just to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. An engine failure 81 laps into last year’s Great American Race was the beginning of a spiral that left Gordon 24th in points approaching Memorial Day. Although he ultimately won twice and secured a Chase wild-card berth, the road there was arduous and stressful.
“We need to finish the Daytona 500. That’s the big deal,” said Alan Gustafson, crew chief for the No. 24 car. “We desperately need that. We’ve worked with Jeff for two years, and I think our best Daytona 500 finish is 36th or something. So that’s the key. … At the end of the day, we need to get the finish and go to Phoenix and Vegas and not have to make such a huge push in the summer where it’s do or die. I’ve always felt the strongest teams show up in the summer months, but it would be nice to be kind of even-keeled going into the summer, and not down.”
Actually, Gordon’s best Daytona 500 finish with Gustafson is 28th two years ago. But his recent struggles in the sport’s biggest race predate that, given that he hasn’t notched a top-10 in this event since 2007. Breaking that skid Sunday would serve as a springboard into the early portion of the Sprint Cup season.
“As competitive as this sport is, it’s hard to climb your way back into that top 10 in points when you’re that far behind,” Gordon said. “When we look at our season of 2013 and in approaching our season of 2013, what’s important to us is to get more consistency early on in the season and get off to a good start. Of course, we want to win. We want to win every race. But we also want to make sure that we’re crossing our Ts and dotting our Is, and when we have a bad day it’s a 10th-place finish and not a 30th-place finish.”
For now, though, Gordon is riding high -- in addition to the speed he’s shown over the last week at Daytona, he’s also the most recent Sprint Cup race winner, having claimed last season’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. As the most recent winner at Hendrick Motorsports, it’s the radio call of his victory anyone hears when they’re placed on hold calling the team shop. Needless to say, there’s no mention of Danica.
“Every time I called in to talk to somebody at Hendrick Motorsports, or my dad or somebody, I was listening to the final five laps at Homestead all winter long,” Gordon said. “So that was pretty cool.”
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