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Times change, but Jeff Gordon remains the same

May 07, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com

Gordon joins Mark Martin as a driver to lead points standings 20 years after first win

RELATED: Gordon expected more from Keselowski | 20 years later, still battling the No. 2

It's pretty exceptional in NASCAR when a driver commemorating the 20th anniversary of his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win is marking the moment while also serving as the current championship leader.

But then again, four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon has long proved himself extraordinary in any decade.

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With 87 more victories since his maiden win in the 1994 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Gordon is third on NASCAR's all-time wins list behind only a pair of Hall of Famers, "The King" Richard Petty (200 wins) and David Pearson (105).

On Wednesday, as Gordon, 42, looked over the NASCAR Hall of Fame exhibit that includes his original winning car, he reflected on the past and spoke encouragingly of the present -- recalling some details of that career-changing night at Charlotte and sharing expectations for 2014.

"I can barely remember how we won Martinsville last year,'' Gordon said with a laugh, noting the 20 years since he hoisted the original trophy.

"That's why I love this event (at the Hall of Fame) that I just did. They showed video from that day and some crucial moments. It really makes me want to go back and get the whole video and watch the race because it was such a special day. 

"I remember I started on the front row, that we had a good car. We led quite a few laps, but Rusty (Wallace) was the car to beat. (Crew chief) Ray (Evernham) made that great call.

"Even watching (video of) me coming down pit road for that final pit stop made me chuckle because they didn't measure pit road speed the same way we do now so it looked like I was speeding, but they didn't have a way to measure other than by a stopwatch."

For as much as the sport has changed during Gordon's two decades -- championship formats, the cars, the drivers and as he noted Wednesday, pit-road speed enforcement -- one thing has stayed the same, and that's the hard-nosed racing he still experiences at every stop.

Gordon said he's actually equal parts surprised and relieved he retained the Sprint Cup championship points lead for the fourth consecutive week after a rough Sunday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway, when he was caught up in a "Big One" triggered by fellow Cup champ Brad Keselowski.

Six laps down at the time, Keselowski was trying to get his laps back at the front of the field and made a driving error that collected 14 other cars including Gordon's No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet.

"I admire him (Keselowski) for wanting to try that, but I just don't think that it was the smartest decision to make because I just don't think he was going to really accomplish what he had set out to do,'' Gordon said. "If he was two or three laps down, I get it, but when you're six laps down or more, it just really doesn't make sense to put yourself in that position and then wreck 14 cars in the process.''

Competing as a champion has always been as important as winning the championship to Gordon, who helped usher in a new era in NASCAR as he started reeling off wins against the old guard like Wallace, Darrell Waltrip and seven-time champ Dale Earnhardt and as he has continued to do with a new crop of mega-talented youngsters who remind many others of a young Gordon.

He has spoken often of his desire to win a Sprint Cup Series trophy to add to his case of Cup trophies because his last came with another series sponsor in 2001.

But while he hears the rumors his career is closing out or the doubters that question if he's got another Cup trophy in him, Gordon has the ultimate trump card.

He's Jeff Gordon. And he's leading the points standings.

With two runner-up finishes in the last four races, he firmly believes he's on the verge of getting that win that earns him essentially an automatic playoff position in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. If not, a top position in the rankings earns him a spot as well.

"I know that time is running short,'' Gordon told reporters Wednesday in a teleconference with the national media. "I can't say I'm sitting here concerned about it. I've had an amazing career. I've accomplished more than I ever thought that I would. Then this year my focus is on what a great racecar and race team that we have.

"I think it's just part of my personality or maybe part of a race car driver's personality that I don't look too far ahead. I worry about the things that I can control. Right now the things I can control is that race car on the weekends, working as hard as I can with the team to get the best results."

Gordon is a two-time winner at Kansas Speedway, the site of Saturday night's 5-hour Energy 400. Only his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and two-time 2014 winner Joey Logano have more top-fives (five) this year.

He's proof of what you get when longevity is combined with superb talent and a competitive spirit.

Even Gordon conceded he has a hard time believing he scored his first win 20 years ago in a year when gas had just topped $1 a gallon at the pump, NFL great O.J. Simpson was arrested on murder charges and Lisa Marie Presley married Michael Jackson.

Sure his resume and current points lead is a source of pride, but it's not enough. Gordon is convinced it's a matter of when, not if, he will visit Victory Lane again.

"We're off to a great start," he said. "Right now I'm healthy. I'm in good shape. I'm having a lot of fun. We're very competitive out there. That's taking all of my attention. Besides the time I spend with my family, that's where my focus is.

"(I'm) not really thinking of anything else other than maybe the urgency of how important it is to win this season if you're going to win the championship."

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