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Menzer: Pocono victory shows Gordon not quite finished

June 13, 2011, Joe Menzer,

LONG POND, Pa. -- Wins aren't coming like early in his career, but four-time champ is still a threat

Jeff Gordon remembers a time when this winning stuff seemed all too easy.

In his first nine years of driving full-time in the Cup Series, Gordon won a total of 58 races and captured four championships. No one was brash enough to assume he would ever keep the torrid pace up long enough to challenge Richard Petty's all-time record of 200 race wins -- but the record of seven championships shared by Petty and Dale Earnhardt seemed well within reach, as did the 105 career wins by registered by David Pearson.

84 for No. 24

Jeff Gordon ran away from the field at Pocono for his 84th Cup victory, putting him third all time.

Then came a hard dose of reality, when Gordon learned that no one stays on top forever. His next nine years of toiling on the Cup circuit produced a total of "only" 24 victories and zero championships.

Sure, there are those who would turn their grandmother at 200 miles per hour on a straightaway for those kinds of numbers in an entire career. But this is Jeff Gordon, folks. Rightly or wrongly, everyone expected even more.

Gordon is still striving to give it to them. But not for them. He's racing for himself and his growing family, willing to let his lifetime legacy fall wherever it does when the career finally does come to an end. When he won last Sunday's 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono, it served as a reminder to all that the final curtain is not yet in his sights and the career numbers, already worthy of a speedy induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, are still piling up.

His Sunday win was the second this season for his No. 24 Chevrolet team, and the 84th of his distinguished career -- tying him for third all-time with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip, behind only the legendary Hall-of-Fame duo of Petty and Pearson.

Looking back

Gordon heard the whispers in 1998, when he won 13 races and his third championship in only his sixth full-time season. He was perhaps going to be the greatest of all time. He would win at least 100 races, more than seven championships.

He heard it all -- and tried to ignore it. It was difficult.

"I mean, in 1998, I will say there were moments in that year where I was like, 'Man, this is kind of easy.' We won 13 races that year," Gordon said. "I'm telling you, as soon as you start to think that, that's when it comes up and smacks you upside the head. So 1999 came and it got our attention. Then 2000 came. To me, those are wake up calls of how hard it is to win, how hard it is to win championships, and that what we were doing was just extraordinary, and it doesn't last forever.

"So you can't keep those kinds of stats up. Nobody can. Maybe Richard and Pearson did, but I've never seen anybody else ever do that. I mean, [current five-time defending champion] Jimmie [Johnson] is certainly on a heck of a streak. I think he'll continue for a little longer. But how long? That stuff is going to not necessarily come to an end, but you're going to have some rough times. It's just the way the world works and the way the competition works."

Of course, Gordon talks about 1999 getting his attention. While he did fall to sixth in the final point standings, he still won a series-high seven races. He talks about 2000 as if it was a monumental failure -- but he still won three races and finished ninth in points.

He won six races and his last championship in 2001, and has spent much of the past five seasons like everyone else in the sport -- struggling to grab his share of wins and attention while Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, has been piling up wins and championships at a young Gordon-like pace.

"Days like [Sunday], to me, give us that confidence and momentum and show the competition that, you know, they might need to start worrying about us again."


Full circle?

Gordon won another six races in 2007, when he finished second to Johnson in points -- but came into this season facing his 40th birthday with a new crew chief in Alan Gustafson and the grand total of just one win the past three seasons.

He heard the whispers again. But this time, they were different.

Gordon is past his prime. Gordon can't close out races any longer. Gordon might not even get to 85 on the all-time win list, let alone the 100 that once seemed such a given.

Once again, he tried to ignore it all.

He won at Phoenix in the second race of the season, and then mostly disappeared again. Until finishing a strong fourth at Kansas Speedway in the race before Pocono, he had stumbled as low as 17th in points and had more finishes of 20th or worse than he did top-fives.

He kept saying he not only wanted to win again, but that he wanted to win to show that he can be a true championship contender again. He said he believes Sunday's victory was another step -- but only a step -- toward proving just that.

"You've got to go out there and show it," Gordon said. "To me, the people that the media talk about, the fans look at, the garage area looks at the threat to win are the people that are doing it on a consistent basis.

"When we were doing that, people looked at us. They were scared of us. They thought, 'Don't ever count them out.' ... I look at Alan's group as a little bit different because it's new. Even though it's still the No. 24, we just have not put the numbers together. So I don't expect anybody to look at us as a real threat.

"But I think the thing that was probably the most disappointing to me was we came into the season talking about the stuff we were going to do. We went to Phoenix and did it. We were like, 'Oh, yeah, we're going to get them.' Then it kind of fell off the cliff for us. ... Days like [Sunday], to me, give us that confidence and momentum and show the competition that, you know, they might need to start worrying about us again."

They'd better. If they don't, they are far more foolish than those who once assumed Gordon would win 100-plus races and was a lock to win a record number of championships.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.