SONOMA, Calif. – There's no better driver at Sonoma Raceway than Jeff Gordon, and for more than a decade he was head of the class on road courses.
He won five times at Sonoma, and grabbed another four wins at Watkins Glen. But Gordon's last win on a road course was 2006. The rest of the field has caught up and Gordon is no longer considered unbeatable.
Yet there he was on Sunday, charging through the field from the 15th position — he was the highest qualifying Hendrick Motorsports driver — to give himself a shot at a sixth Sonoma victory. But he made one small error while chasing down Carl Edwards, so it took him longer to get to the leader than expected.
When he finally made it to Edwards' bumper in the final turn of the 10-turn course, Gordon declined to move Edwards out of his way. The four-time champion let Edwards go, and Edwards sailed off to his first career road course victory.
Gordon settled for second, his third runner-up finish this season.
"It's not worth wrecking the guy because, hey, if you're racing the guy and you get a couple runs on him, he blocks you here and he blocks you there and you're faster, then you might not give an inch," Gordon said. "You might go in there and you might use the bumper. But I really had just caught him."
So Gordon felt his best bet was to try to force Edwards into making a mistake that Gordon would seize. Edwards held it together and shook Gordon loose.
During the Victory Lane celebration, Gordon came by to congratulate the winner. The move touched Edwards.
"I'm a fan of this sport and I grew up watching Jeff Gordon go through those s's and watching how he drove his car," Edwards said. "So to be able to hold him off like that means a lot. I'm glad there wasn't one or two more laps in the race because I don't know if it would have worked out that way, but it definitely meant a lot to have Jeff Gordon in my mirror."
At almost 43 years old, those are sentiments Gordon is hearing more frequently as he's become the elder statesman of the Sprint Cup Series.
Mark Martin has called it a career, Jeff Burton is transitioning into a television job and Bobby Labonte no longer has a ride. Gordon's contemporaries are climbing out of their race cars, but at the start of his third decade in NASCAR, Gordon is still getting it done.
"I'm starting to hear that a lot more, where somebody was born when I won my first championship or was watching me as a kid," Gordon said. "I love racing here. I love being competitive and leading the points and having a shot at winning races, at 22 years into my Cup career. We're having fun."
He should be: With 10 races remaining to set the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field, Gordon has a 20-point lead over teammate Jimmie Johnson in the points standings. He has the one win needed to lock him into the 16-driver Chase field. Toss out an accident-induced 39th-place finish at Talladega and Gordon hasn't finished lower than 15th this year.
Gordon has failed to finish in the top-10 just four times in 16 races this season.
Yes, winning has a greater emphasis this season. But consistency still matters down the stretch.
Gordon still faces persistent questions about retirement. Part of that is driven by age and the fact that the father of two young children has the luxury to choose when he wants to get off the road and become a family man. And part of that is driven by an aching back that has bothered him for years.
It flared up again in May before the Coca-Cola 600, and Gordon is receiving regular treatment. He insists he feels fine, though, and the flight from North Carolina to San Francisco was more stressful on his back than the three-plus hours in a race car.
Sure, there's going to come a day when Gordon decides he's done with racing. But based on his current performance, it's not anytime soon.
"It's certainly the most consistent, greatest cars that I've had going week in and week out," he said. "To have cars that are capable of either winning or running up front, I'm very confident in what I'm getting behind the wheel of every weekend. The cars are just really, really good, and that's making a lot of fun for me."