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Gordon feels he's right there in Chase hunt

October 03, 2013, Holly Cain,

Veteran driver knows he's not that far from title number five

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A late and final addition to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship field, Jeff Gordon is the first to tell you he’s happy to be there.

But make no mistake, he’s not just happy to be there.

Three races into the 10-race Chase, Gordon may not be quite riding the bumpers of championship leaders Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch, but he’s keeping them honest.

A fourth place at Dover last week and a sixth place two weeks ago at Chicago has helped the four-time Cup champ climb into the top five in the championship standings, 39 points behind leader Kenseth entering Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 (ESPN, 2 p.m. ET) at Kansas Speedway.

Gritty and racy on track with smiles and "atta-boys" in the garage, Gordon arguably carried the least pressure into NASCAR’s postseason. He was added to the championship mix two days before the Chase began by NASCAR Chairman Brian France, who expanded the normally 12-driver field to 13 in wake of a controversy at the Sept. 7 regular season finale at Richmond.

Gordon's never looked back. Instead he's competing like a driver with everything to gain and perhaps a point to prove to those prematurely sending the 42-year old future Hall of Famer into retirement.

When Gordon climbed out of his No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet after the race at Dover last week, he was energized and talking like the fierce competitor who once regularly beat out current Hall of Famers such as Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett for championships in the late-1990s and early 2000s.

"Once you’ve made it in to the Chase -- however you make it in -- you have to step up your game,’’ Gordon said on Dover’s pit lane, alternately accepting and offering congrats to his Hendrick Motorsports team.

"My team stepped it up weeks before the Chase began. I love it. And I’m having fun going to the race track every week right now."

Running well certainly helps that.

He's had five top-10s in the last six races -- including three straight heading into the Sept. 15 Chicago Chase opener. His lowest finish in that span was 15th at Loudon, and he led laps (36) there.

Gordon's won at all seven of the remaining Chase venues, including twice at Kansas (2001 and 2002). He was 13th there earlier this season despite crashing his primary car in practice and racing from a lap down late in the race.

"Certainly, Chicago, New Hampshire and here are three good race tracks for us. This coming up track, at Kansas is going to be the big test for us," Gordon said. "If we can perform well there, then we have Martinsville and Charlotte and Homestead, we have some great tracks for us.

"Certainly coming off some momentum here, I'm excited and looking forward. The team is excited and on top of their game right now."

As the Chase begins to establish the favorites and the "thanks-for-playing" drivers, it's evident Gordon considers himself a worthy contender. He wasn’t merely satisfied for a top-five Sunday, but a bit remiss at not hoisting the trophy in Victory Lane.

"It's bittersweet because I feel like we had a shot at winning the race there if the (last) caution hadn’t have come out," Gordon said. "We were sitting there second on the restart and just couldn’t get going on two tires. We came home fourth though, still not bad.

"But you always want more."

"That’s a great big picture day for sure. I hate to bring up last week (15th at New Hampshire), but had we not had that issue we would really be in a good position (in the championship).

"We’re not bad and we've got a lot of racing left to go. We keep performing like this there’s a lot more points we can gain."


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