Jeff Gordon looks to keep championship fire
July 29, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
As well as his team had performed this year, Jeff Gordon wasn't convinced the group truly was championship material. He wasn't sure his team believed it either.
A victory in Sunday's Crown Royal presents, The John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway changed all that.
Career win No. 90 came at one of the most storied venues in all of motorsports, so it's easy to get caught up in the emotion of the moment. But Gordon seemed to speak from the heart when he said that the victory silenced any lingering questions.
"I think we saw we were the points leaders, we saw we won at Kansas," he said after winning for a record fifth time at the Brickyard, "but I don't know if we believed we were capable of winning this championship this year, truly believed it.
"We do now. We've got to keep that fire in us, keep it going."
While he's been battling for championships throughout the majority of his 20-plus year career, his last Cup title came in 2001. Since then, others have dominated, either for a season or for longer. All three of Tony Stewart's titles have come since Gordon last captured the championship; Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson has won six during that time as well. Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski have also won one title apiece.
But Gordon has hardly slipped from view -- while no more championship celebrations have come his way, he's stacked up 32 more victories, passing such legendary drivers as Dale Earnhardt, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip on the all-time win list.
If he's more driven, he says it's due to the influence of team owner Rick Hedrick and crew chief Alan Gustafson. While Hendrick has won championships with Gordon and Johnson, Gustafson is still searching for his first title as crew chief. Now a 17-time winner with four different drivers, he finished a career-best second atop the box with driver Mark Martin in 2009.
"These two guys … definitely played a big role," Gordon said of his car owner and crew chief. "… You feel like you've kind of won all that you could win, you've won four championships, then a guy like Jimmie Johnson comes along and starts dominating (and) you kind of lose the motivation.
"I think between conversations I've had with Rick, with Alan, coming so close, winning the championship, the drive that he has, that work ethic that he has, how good the race cars are, I don't want to be the weak link. So it's pushed me to give more, do more, work harder."
If there's a difference between today and 20 years ago when he won his first Brickyard title, Gordon said it is the increased engineering that's now involved in the sport -- and the commitment that is required.
"It puts more pressure on you as a driver," he said. "You can't make mistakes because they'll show it to you. 'Right here you didn't get in the throttle. Right here you used too much brake. Right here you were too slow on pit road.'
"You have to be spot on, on top of your game."
A runner-up finish at Texas earlier this year propelled Gordon to the top of the points standings, and except for a brief, one-week stay at No. 2, he has held the position ever since.
He and his team will enter this week's race at Pocono Raceway sporting a 24-point advantage over teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.
That combination of strength and consistency will likely bode well for the team in the coming weeks.
"I think the reason we're leading the points is because I believe we're the best team," Gordon said.
That doesn't always mean his team has the best car on the track, he said, adding, "there have been times when I felt we needed a little bit more."
But at Indy, "we had the best car and the best team, no doubt about it."
And that, he said, "tells me if you can do it here, you can do it anywhere.
"It's certainly going to be a huge confidence boost for this team. We recognize the significance of this."