While his hopes of winning the Chase this year are practically over, Jeff Gordon sees himself running several more years and having more chances to win an elusive fifth Sprint Cup championship.
The four-time champ said he was willing to give a five-year commitment to sponsors who were negotiating with the team this year. Gordon, 39, and Hendrick Motorsports announced this week that his No. 24 team will be sponsored for the next three years by the AARP Foundation and DuPont.
Gordon’s willingness to commit long-term doesn’t necessarily mean he thinks he’ll still be racing in five years, but it certainly is a possibility.
“I am so passionate about it. I am still competitive and my health, from my back standpoint, has gotten better and that’s giving me years to be behind the wheel,” Gordon said. “All that gets brought up when you are renegotiating and talking to sponsors and I definitely told them I am good to go for five years.
“But I’m a race-car driver. I don’t plan that far ahead. To me this is still a dangerous sport and it’s just something that I’ve always respected and appreciated the opportunity to go out there and I think week to week and year to year.”
Team owner Rick Hendrick isn’t worried that Gordon will change his mind and want to retire soon.
“Have you seen that new house he’s building?” Hendrick said. “He’ll probably be driving 10 more years. … He’s been taking lessons from Mark Martin. I think Jeff is really committed. I don’t see him slowing down.
“He’s more focused and really working harder than I’ve ever seen him work, both physically and with the team. I think Jeff is going to be around for a long time.”
Gordon had a chance to win the 2010 Chase For The Sprint Cup, but he wasn’t going to do it by dominating the Chase, but by being consistently strong.
That didn’t happen. In the first six Chase races, Gordon has three top-10 finishes, two finishes of 20th or worse and a best finish of fifth at Kansas.
So despite running second in the standings much of the regular season thanks to 10 top-five finishes, the still winless Gordon is watching others battle for the title.
Seemingly out of championship contention, Gordon is looking forward to the rest of the season.
“I don’t know if we really have been strong enough to be there outperforming the 48 [of Johnson] and the 11 [of Hamlin] and the 29 [of Harvick] anyway,” Gordon said. “I think our key to success in the Chase was to be consistent and get some top-10s and make those guys have to get those wins and make sure they stay on top of their game, and that hasn’t gone as planned.
“Why? You can’t expect the alternator issue that we had at Charlotte. That kind of stung us. We were set [for] a great finish, a consistent, good finish at Martinsville and the [bumping] deal happened between me and Kurt.”
Gordon is disappointed he isn’t challenging for the title, but he could tell before the Chase that his team might not have been running as well as the three top.
“You’ve got to stay positive, you’ve got to go into every race thinking you can win and that’s what we do,” Gordon said. “We go through the motions of building the best car we can, communicating the best we can before we get to the race, once we get to the race, and executing on race day.
“I believe when we execute to our full potential, we have a shot at winning. But we haven’t had some breaks go our way, as well as we need to get ourselves in a position to where we’re executing to being more at the front and not make those big gutsy calls to win the race.”
That shot of winning could come in the final four races, Gordon said.
“I am really looking forward to the next four races because anybody can win Talladega,” Gordon said. “So I feel like we’ve got a shot there. Texas, I’ve been looking forward to getting to for a while because we’ve run so good there, and I am anxious to see what our setup is, how it works, the second time around.
“Phoenix, we had a shot at winning there. We were better than we have been there in a long time. And Homestead, we are decent at Homestead, but we need to be better. But I am looking forward to ending out the season and hopefully we can do it on a positive note.”
At Talladega, where has won six times, Gordon plans to race throughout the event, which will be different than some strategies. Some drivers opt to lag in the rear of the field to avoid the big wreck, while other drivers push it every lap.
“It’s just one of those races that I think everybody in a way dreads that style of racing, but at the end of the day, when you finish in the top five or 10 and you survive those, it’s a pretty fun and exciting place to race,” Gordon said. “You’re exhausted mentally after it, but you’re more relieved than anything else to get it over with.
“We all recognize Talladega is a track that is truly for the fans. We go into it trying to figure out how to race as hard as we can race, try to put ourselves in position to win, put on a great show but get to the end. Even with that mindset, it doesn’t [always] happen.”
The hard part about restrictor-plate racing with the current car is that it’s actually easy to pass another car.
“It’s too easy to pass – that’s the problem,” Gordon said. “You’re sitting there going, ‘I just don’t want to pass this guy because I don’t know if I’m going to get a drafting partner. I just want to wait, wait, wait, wait.’
“That’s what happens. The guy that’s 10th in line gets impatient and he’s like, ‘Nobody is going to pull out and go.’ We can all pull out and go at anytime, but you have to have somebody go with you.”
The key to winning at Talladega is finding the right drafting partner at the right time. But the driver that is out front of a two-car draft isn’t always in the best position.
“It’s easier to pass today but harder to win,” Gordon said. “Because it’s so easy to pass, the shuffling just goes round and round and round. It’s really hard to put yourself in the position you need to be in to get that win. You want to be in that position like Kevin Harvick – second pushing first place, they lock up, they go and then he pulls out.
“You almost can’t stop that pass unless you want to end up like Carl [Edwards] did.”
Edwards’ car spun, flipped and flew into the fence after contact with Brad Keselowski on the final lap in April 2009.
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