News & Media

No margin for error as Gordon tries to regain Monster Mile magic

October 01, 2011, Joe Menzer,

No margin for error as Gordon tries to regain Monster Mile magic, climb in Chase

DOVER, Del. -- Jeff Gordon once owned every inch of the Monster Mile.

But that was long, long ago. During one stretch in 1995 and '96, Gordon won three consecutive races at Dover International Speedway. He won again at the 1-mile track in 2001, giving him four wins total.

Only four drivers have won more at the venue -- and three of them (Bobby Allison, Richard Petty and David Pearson) are already enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The fourth such driver is five-time defending Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.

Now Gordon is seeking to regain his lost Monster Mile magic. His last top-10 finish on the concrete surface was a sixth in 2009 and it's now been a decade since his last win -- but he'll be pursuing old times and his fifth championship with little margin for error.

After running out of gas and finishing 24th in the opening Chase for the Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks ago, Gordon said he's used up what he figures was his only mulligan in the 10-race Chase.

"I do feel like our mulligan is used up and you hate to do it in Race 1 and it could have been a lot worse than that," Gordon said. "But I do think any worse finish than what we had there, then we would have been out of it altogether.

"So I would call that a mulligan. I think 25th or 24th wherever we finished there, I would say that is a mulligan."

With three wins this season, Gordon is flexing race muscles of years past. The last of his four Cup championships came in 2001, three years before NASCAR introduced the Chase playoff system.

That was the same year a young Darian Grubb came to work at Hendrick Motorsports. Now Grubb is crew chief for Tony Stewart, who leads the Chase, and he said Saturday that Gordon is one of the drivers behind his No. 14 team that he's keeping a close eye on.

"Jeff was on top of the world [in 2001]. It's funny to see him now, getting back into that groove," Grubb said. "I don't know what it is. It seems like everyone goes through cycles in this sport, and he went through one of those where things just didn't go his way. But he's got the focus and he's got the drive, and things have started to go his way again the last couple of years -- and especially this year. He's back on top again.

"I consider him and Brad Keselowski probably the two biggest threats right behind us right now. And of course Carl Edwards. He's a perpetual guy that's always there. It's going to be interesting."

Gordon sure hopes he can help make it so. But after being fast during the final two practices for Sunday's race -- he was second behind teammate Mark Martin in Happy Hour with a fast lap of 154.017 mph -- Gordon slipped in qualifying and will start 34th in the AAA 400.

So it will be a challenge for sure, especially with no more mulligans in his Chase bag. He said this season has had a championship contending-type feel all year, and he's hoping that won't change after this race.

"I've never won a Chase for the Sprint Cup championship so it's hard for me to compare [to how it felt during his other championship seasons]," Gordon said. "All I can compare to is '04, '07 -- the years that we've had since the Chase and the Sprint Cup was put together when we contended.

"We had strong teams and cars those years and we just didn't quite get it done in the final races. It's just so much different when you're talking about 10 races. Just by looking at what Tony had done [prior to the Chase]. Tony came in with very little momentum and with everybody pretty much counting him out -- and he wins the first two [Chase races]."

Gordon would love to come from near the rear and challenge for the win at the Monster Mile, which would go a long way toward helping him achieve his larger goal of winning a fifth championship.

"This is our playoffs. It's our championship. It's everything we work for," Gordon said. "It's the ultimate achievement and goal in motorsports.

"I think it's far more competitive now than it's ever been, which only makes the reward that much sweeter if you can achieve it. Only one guy has done it the last five straight years, so we're all looking to try to put a different name on that trophy this year. And we've got an excellent shot at it."