Gordon's gamble shows 24 team's growth
April 06, 2014, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com
FORT WORTH, Texas -- The decision was different, but it was easy. Jeff Gordon had slipped out of the top three into sixth place when the final caution flag dropped at Texas Motor Speedway on Monday, a development that necessitated a green-white-checkered finish.
The veteran had one opportunity to win. Take two tires. So crew chief Alan Gustafson made the call; Gordon was the first car off pit road, the lead car on the low line when the green flag dropped and -- just barely -- in the lead when the white flag fell.
But Joey Logano, who had led 33 consecutive laps before the debris from Kurt Busch's shredded tire forced that seventh and final caution, passed the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion on the final lap to become the seventh winner in the season's first seven races, leaving Gordon in second place.
"We weren't going to win it any other way," crew chief Alan Gustafson said as his team loaded its Chevrolet into the hauler. "Fortunately for us, the guys have done a great job and we've gotten off to a good start (this season). We could take that gamble. There's no other way we were going to win it -- and I thought it was going to be close."
It was. But perhaps more than being close to a victory, the late-race scenario was strikingly similar to the Auto Club 400 earlier this year. That was the event in which Gordon went into pit road as the leader in advance of the G-W-C finish, took four tires and lost six spots on pit road before being shuffled back to 13th in the final two laps.
Auto Club is a 2-mile track with old pavement that chews up tires. Texas, while high-banked and at 1.5 miles, is similarly bumpy with a track surface known for producing tire falloff.
It was the 24 team's ability to learn from a past result, and in turn use that information like they would telemetry spitting onto their computer screens, that had both the driver and crew chief pleased.
"We were really happy to see that caution," Gordon said. "Alan made a great call. I think we learned a lesson in California when we took four (tires) there that maybe we would have been better off taking two. You're not going to win it with four, you're not going to win it with none. I think that was a good call."
The fact that Fontana's 13th-place run is the lowlight of Gordon's year also speaks to the veteran's resurgence.
While victory remained just out of grasp Monday, the runner-up finish was Gordon's best of the season and gives him three top-fives and five top-10s in the first seven races. Gordon's average finish in 2014 is 7.4.
It's his best start to the season since 2009, when Gordon posted an average finish of 4.6 through the first seven races. The 43-point day vaulted the veteran into the points lead for the first time in nearly five years.
"I thought that in California, we had the best car," Gustafson said. "But that's just one out of seven. We've had a lot of top-five cars, and that's good. There's a lot of guys out here who can't say they were the best car anywhere. But it's not great. ... Even though we've performed well, I don't think we're where we want to be.
"As soon as you feel like you're where you want to be, or as soon as you feel like you're good, you get humbled real quick."
Where they want to be is the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Under the new postseason format, the only surefire way to get there is to win.
And while the new win-and-get-in mentality makes visiting Victory Lane more valuable, there's no system in this galaxy that could cause Gordon to value victories more than he already does as a fierce competitor.
"The pressure's always there to win," Gordon said. "You always want to win. Winning benefits you, whether it's this points system or any other points system. Winning is the ultimate. That's what we are all out there to do.
"Every race that goes by that there's a different winner, the pressure gets more intense. You just got to go look at that next opportunity and try to put yourself in that position to go win it. I'm real happy with the way our team's performing this year. We're running really strong, and we're consistently running strong. I know that opportunity's going to come for us."