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Jeff Gordon 2013 year in review

December 20, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com

Strong Chase showing reignites desire for championship No. 5

RELATED: 2013 recaps for every Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup driver

This is the eighth in a series of 2013 Sprint Cup Series driver recaps that will be featured on NASCAR.com

One of the 2013 highlights for Jeff Gordon was getting a chance this summer to spend time and make a web feature series with Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard. At the time, Gordon joked about whether his own season story would have a Hollywood ending.

Boy did it. And it was award worthy, too.

After being added by NASCAR Chairman & CEO Brian France to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoff field as an unprecedented 13th driver following the controversial season finale at Richmond, Gordon and his No. 24 team seized the opportunity the four-time champ insists was legitimately due to them.

FULL SERIES COVERAGE

SEASON IN REVIEW

"We may have been a late addition but I knew in my heart we belonged in the Chase and we proved that week after week," Gordon said, accepting his sixth-place trophy during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards banquet.

Not only was Gordon's sixth-place finish in the championship standings his best since 2009 (third place), it marked the second straight year he won both a Coors Light Pole (Charlotte) and a race (Martinsville) during the high-stakes 10-race Chase.

After Gordon's emotional and impressive eighth career victory at Martinsville in October, he was ranked as high as third in the standings. But a flat tire on his Chevrolet only 73 laps into the Texas race the next week led to a frustrating 38th-place showing that virtually ended his title hopes.

"The Chase was actually the best part of our season," Gordon said. "It wasn't easy and the competition was tough, but we had great cars, qualified better and did all the things I think we needed to be doing earlier in the season.

"We like running good in the Chase, and that's cool, but we need to be solid earlier."

That Gordon was able to make a run for the Chase at all says a lot about the perseverance of his team considering the many early trials and tribulations it had to overcome.

After earning the outside pole position for the season-opening Daytona 500, Gordon led 31 laps but managed only a 20th-place finish in NASCAR's Super Bowl. It marked the fourth consecutive year he finished 20th or worse, but more significantly to him, it set a tone of playing catch-up.

He posted only three top-15s in the first seven races, and three DNFs in a seven-race swing in the summer put the team further in the hole. On the year, Gordon's five DNFs tied Ryan Newman as most among Chase contenders -- and is more than any other drivers among the top 20.

"We ask ourselves every year … even if you are the champion, you ask -- How do you improve for next year?" Gordon said. "I feel like for us we just didn't get a good start to the season. We started behind at Daytona and were playing catch-up the whole time.

"For us, it's about getting into a rhythm a little earlier and maintaining improvement for the whole season. We have to focus on being in the championship earlier instead of going to Richmond and stressing out just trying to get in."

In the end, Gordon says he enters 2014 more optimistic and encouraged. He added win number 88 to his career total -- a mark bettered only by Hall of Famers Richard Petty (200 wins) and David Pearson (105 wins).

As he proudly watched his Hendrick Motorsports teammate and friend Jimmie Johnson accept his sixth championship trophy in the last eight years, Gordon said he left the awards ceremony more determined than ever.

Far from being ready to retire, the 42-year-old Gordon knows only that there are races to win and championships to decide.

"It's bittersweet because you're proud to be a part of Hendrick Motorsports and Rick (Hendrick) is more than just a boss and friend to me," Gordon said. "And Jimmie, I've known for so long and love seeing him have success.

"But at the same time we want to win. When you're not at the head table, it's highly motivating. You see the accolades, you see the awards, you want to be experiencing that."

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