Jeff Gordon 'pumped' about fast start
March 05, 2014, Pat DeCola, NASCAR.com
Since we're still in our post-Oscars comedown phase, let's put Jeff Gordon's hot start this season into the proper Hollywood context, winding the clock back to The 69th Academy Awards, on March 24, 1997.
"The English Patient" had just cleaned up, despite Elaine Benes' dissatisfaction with the film in an episode of "Seinfeld" that aired two weeks earlier; Tom Cruise was overlooked for his leading role in "Jerry Maguire," but Cuba Gooding Jr.'s performance in the film earned him hardware for Best Supporting Actor; and "Fargo" took home the honors for Best Original Screenplay to put a couple of brothers with the last name Coen on the map.
Sound dated? It should.
Rewind a month and a day even further to February 23 of that year, and you've got the last time Gordon opened the season with a pair of top-five finishes -- that is, until he accomplished the feat this past weekend with his fifth-place showing at Phoenix International Raceway, a week after finishing fourth in the Daytona 500.
While his rapid start can't touch the way he burst out of the gates in 1997 with his first Daytona 500 victory and follow-up win at Rockingham (which hasn't hosted a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event since 2004), it does speak volumes about how ready the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team came to race this season, as the future NASCAR Hall of Famer wades further into the twilight of his career.
When Gordon was asked on pit road after the race what it means to open the season with two top-fives, the words came flying out of his mouth with such an excitement that he cut off the questioner midstream.
"Man, I'm pumped."
And you could tell he really meant it.
Getting there wasn't easy, though. Shortly after making his way up to the front of the pack by Lap 238, Gordon came in for a two-tire pit stop just as a caution was called for debris on the backstretch on Lap 248. He was then faced with the uphill battle of working his way through the field from 14th with just over 50 laps left in a race that had proven difficult for many to move up all day.
"We got real behind getting caught out there on that one caution and we only two took tires and that could've worked for us or against us," Gordon said.
"Luckily, more cautions came that actually helped us. I got one really good restart on the outside where I passed two or three cars and then I was on the inside on a little bit fresher tires and got a couple more. I certainly took advantage of (Ryan) Newman and Jimmie (Johnson) side-by-side there at the end and was able to take them three-wide. In clean air, our car was -- I don't know if it was as good as the 4 (of race-winner Kevin Harvick) or the 88 (runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr.) -- but it was just about as good as anybody else's out there."
Gordon further explained how he was able to sneak past Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson (who finished 6th) and Richard Childress Racing's Newman (7th) for the fifth-place finish.
"On that last restart, I actually got a good run on Newman and he worked the outside down here and got a run on Jimmie," Gordon said. "When those two went in the corner and slid up, I was able to get underneath them and take them three-wide down the back straightaway and when I got to (Turn 3), I was actually pretty clear.
"You know when Ryan Newman's in front of you on the restart, it's going to get interesting."
The even more interesting part of that restart -- and what caused everybody in the media center to collectively yell, 'Whoa!' -- was the move that Joey Logano pulled to try to bump leader Harvick out of the way. Coming around Turn 1, Logano went low on the apron and tried to squeeze his way past Harvick into the lead. It was a valiant effort, for sure, but one that inevitably failed as Logano's Ford ceded way to Harvick's Chevrolet, which had been in a class of its own all day.
"I thought, 'Well, I'm going to pass a few cars right here because I thought we were going to see (Logano) send (Harvick) up into the wall,'" said Gordon, who had a pretty close view of it. "That's one of those moves where -- because I've been in that position before -- at times it looks really good, but then you get down there and you realize how dirty the track really is and how bad of an angle that is going in. You really have no option other than to either slide into the guy or just slow way down. A lot of times that actually hurts you."
That said, it's the kind of move race fans might have to get used to seeing. From a spectator's point of view, that's not a bad thing. It was fresh; it was exciting. But why, exactly, did we see it?
Because of the new Chase format and the added emphasis on winning to virtually clinch a postseason spot.
"I think that when a win is in your sights, regardless of what the points are, you get hungry and you go for it, especially on double-file restarts, and these restarts are so crucial here," Gordon said.
"When you put (the new Chase system) on top of it, it definitely intensifies things to the next level. I'm sure it was intense."
The series now moves to Las Vegas, where drivers might look to make similar gambles to try to pick up a win and virtually lock their spot in the Chase, especially after seeing how Logano was able to test the maneuver without major consequences. All he did was lose a spot from third to fourth.
With finishes outside the top 10 and a total of four laps led in his last three starts in Sin City, Gordon might figure he has nothing to lose. He certainly could be determined to push the odds in his favor with an aggressive move at the end.
For now, though, it looks like the veteran is satisfied collecting top-fives, knowing a win isn't far off if his team maintains its consistency.
"To me, next week's the real test," said Gordon, who scored his only Vegas win in 2001. "We really struggled at Vegas last year and this is a great way to get us fired up and ready to go. If we can get a top-five next week, then this team is really, really onto something and it's something I'm excited about."