Track Smack: How high can Gordon go?
May 15, 2014, Holly Cain, David Caraviello and Alan Cavanna, NASCAR.com
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Editor's Note: Track Smack is a weekly feature that will showcase a panel of NASCAR.com experts providing their analysis from the previous week, while also looking ahead. In this edition, NASCAR.com's David Caraviello, Holly Cain and Alan Cavanna examine Jeff Gordon's recent success and if there's hope for more, Danica Patrick's career-best run and if Jimmie Johnson can capture his third consecutive victory in the Sprint All-Star Race.
1. After winning this past Saturday night at Kansas, Jeff Gordon's next victory would be his 90th in the Sprint Cup Series. How high can the four-time champion go?
Holly Cain: Some questioned whether he'd get 89. But I was certain. He'll need to maintain a good pace, but I would not be surprised if he passes David Pearson on the all-time list -- or at least makes it close.
David Caraviello: OK, first of all, a second to reflect on that -- 90 is a massive number. I realize Richard Petty and Pearson are still ahead of him, but it's still hard to believe a guy could climb that high given the level of competitiveness in this era. Now, how much higher could he go? If he turns in a multi-win season on the level of 2007, then 100 might be a nice, round benchmark to shoot for.
Alan Cavanna: I think 100 is legitimately within reach. Win 89 had him feeling like he was "25 years old," he said. That attitude and performance can easily continue and grow. We saw Matt Kenseth win seven races last year.
Cain: Agreed, David. It would be a massive effort. But I don't know that we'll see another modern era driver even with a shot at this. Just too competitive.
Caraviello: Holly, I'm with you -- we're seeing something now we may never see again. But put this into perspective -- Gordon's needed nine seasons to amass his last 16 victories, which is the number currently separating him from Pearson. The guy is not going to race nine more years. If he has a big, multi-win year in him, then we'll see how high he can go. But he'd need a bunch of them this season before something like that would even be conceivable.
Cavanna: Maybe Gordon can check off four or five this year. It's funny what a win, or good performance, will do for the conversation. Remember the retirement talk? Chase Elliott in the No. 24 car soon? Not at this rate. Not if "Four-Time" keeps going like this.
Cain: What's more likely for him -- 100 wins or a fifth title?
Caraviello: Here's the thing with Gordon, guys -- the cars are good every week, and weird stuff isn't happening to him. This really does remind me of 2007, when Gordon knocked out 30 top 10s and was in the hunt for the title until the final weeks. He hasn't won a lot in recent years, but his cars haven't been as good as they are now, either.
Cain: Hey, Tony Stewart won five races in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, for Pete's sake. Who knows how far Gordon takes this rejuvenation?
Cavanna: Love that question, Holly. I think a fifth title is more within his reach. Imagine him pulling a John Elway, winning the title at Homestead, and then walking away.
Caraviello: Yeah, Alan, that's the whole unknown here -- would he really walk away if he wins the title this year, as he's hinted he might? Then we can forget about victory totals. So really, I guess the number we should be focusing on isn't 100 -- it's five. But think about it -- if he won five more times this year, got to 95 and another title -- holy cow. No reason to keep going after that. Take those two little kids and go to Fiji for a year.
Cain: Jeff teases about that championship walk-off, but he's too young still, with a great team and a legacy that can only grow.
Caraviello: The question isn't how much longer can he race -- it's how much longer does he want to. If would be really difficult to resist going out on top should the perfect scenario arise. I mean, it's been seven years since Jeff's last truly great season. Would he really want to go after another one?
Cain: Maybe instead of John Elway, he comes back like Brett Favre -- only better. A year in Fiji and he comes back for more wins -- with a better tan.
Caraviello: Yes! And with a beard down to his waistline, and carrying a volleyball. Love it!
Cavanna: Few racers get the chance to go out on top of their game. I hope Gordon gets that opportunity.
2. Danica Patrick finished a career-best seventh Saturday night at Kansas. Was that an aberration, or a sign of things to come?
Cain: The eternal optimist in me says it was a sign of good things. So does the practical side of me. She has continually shown improvement, and Stewart-Haas Racing is in contention every week.
Caraviello: OK, let's say this right off the bat: that pass she made of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart -- on a night when hardly anyone could pass -- might have been the most impressive thing Danica has ever done in a stock car. That was a jaw-dropper. The whole evening was. If she can somehow replicate that at Charlotte, another 1.5-mile track, then it would be hard to not believe she's on the brink of a real breakthrough.
Cavanna: I think it's a sign of what's possible. Good equipment, smart teammates and good feedback to your crew will get you places.
Caraviello: I've always believed she had the most potential to be competitive on fast intermediate tracks. It's a matter of comfort in the car, and confidence. And a bit of advice from new teammate Kevin Harvick, evidently. But still -- what a difference. That was just an amazing run. Certainly was fun to watch.
Cain: I've seen her do amazing things in a race car before, so it has been interesting to watch this NASCAR education. She will get it. And Saturday night proved what happens when it all comes together.
Cavanna: I look forward to finding out what she learned by running with those drivers at the front of the field. Those are opportunities she doesn't often get. If she took away some lessons, then this could be a springboard for some good change.
Caraviello: Now, the 600 is another animal. The long race, the day-to-night transition, the constant adjusting on the car -- not to sell her short, but I don't know if those play to her strengths. But, the All-Star Race? In shorter segments where she can really let it hang out? If she gets in via the Sprint Showdown or the fan vote, and brings something close to that performance from Kansas -- who knows.
Cain: Well, she does know a thing or two about running well on Memorial Day weekend! And she steps it up in big events. We've seen that.
Caraviello: Whatever happens from here forward, she needed Saturday night. She needs those races where the improvement shows through, not just for herself but to stave off all those who doubt her.
Cavanna: Kansas bought her a little more time with the doubters, but consistent top 20 runs is what she needs.
Cain: I think a longer race like the 600 actually works to her favor. Gives her time to sort things out. And it typically has so many facets.
Caraviello: I don't know -- I'm still not convinced that improving the car on the fly is one of her strengths just yet. But if the thing is good, she sure as heck can drive it. And yes, Holly, she does like the big stage. And she has two big ones coming up the next two weeks!
3. Jimmie Johnson goes for his third consecutive victory in the Sprint All-Star Race on Saturday night. Has he recaptured his Charlotte magic?
Cain: I imagine there's no one more eager to race at Charlotte. It could be his cure for a winless season. We talk about Danica needing a little confidence boost -- Jimmie needs the result to match the effort, and Charlotte is the place he has to be most favored.
Caraviello: OK, far be it from me to doubt the greatest driving champion of our generation and all-around incredible person Jimmie Johnson, but -- that All-Star Race last year was Kurt Busch's to win. He had everybody covered in that No. 78 car, and was done in by a slow final pit stop and a crew that perhaps wasn't ready for prime time. Yes, Johnson won, no taking that from him. But it's not like he blew everyone away.
Cavanna: It may not be called "Lowe's Motor Speedway" anymore, but the first thought of many at that track will always be Jimmie Johnson. And few people remember Kurt's performance last year, David. They remember winners. And Jimmie won. That team finds a way to show up at that race.
Caraviello: When Jimmie dominated at Charlotte in the early 2000s, winning five of six races at one point, a lot of things were different. The track hadn't been resurfaced, and the No. 48 essentially used the same chassis for every event there. Then the track changed, and the car changed, and Jimmie's performance there changed as well. So I don't think the past two All-Star events are exactly comparable to the years there when he was untouchable.
Cain: Valid points, David. And there are a couple of other drivers like Kasey Kahne who have worthy records at Charlotte as well. I just think a win for Jimmie at Charlotte changes the season for him completely.
Caraviello: Kahne might be the sleeper here. Whatever they found at that Kansas tire test, it sure worked Saturday night. And with another 1.5-mile track looming -- who knows.
Cavanna: Six-Time's finishes this year haven't been spectacular, at least by the standard he's created. But, clearly there's something about this All-Star Race that works for them. Short races and strategy bring out the best in Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.
Caraviello: I will give you that, Alan. The emphasis on pit crews and adjustments in between segments certainly plays to the No. 48 team's strength. And Jimmie surely has a lot of confidence there. Whatever happens this weekend, I just can't wait until Jeff "Cast Away" Gordon comes out of his South Pacific retirement and starts winning races in a long beard and a loincloth.
Cain: Fire resistant, of course!
Caraviello: Who knew they made loincloths out of Nomex?
Cavanna: Where's Wilson?
Cain: If that image doesn't motivate Jimmie, nothing will.