It's been nearly two decades since Jeff Gordon won his first Sprint Cup road race. He has one more chance to add to his legacy on the two twisting courses NASCAR visits each year.
A five-time winner at Sonoma and four-time winner at Watkins Glen International, Gordon is NASCAR's leader in road course wins heading into Sunday's Sprint Cup race at The Glen.
Another would make it a perfect 10 — it would be the first victory of his final season and, more importantly, pretty much secure a spot in the 10-race Chase for the series title. Drivers with at least one win and in the top 30 in points are virtually assured of a spot in the field of 16. So far this season, there have been 11 winners, though one of them, Kyle Busch, remains 13 points outside the cutoff.
Gordon sits 10th in points and in a comfortable position with five races to go before the Chase.
"There are no guarantees unless you get that win. That win means so much," Gordon said Friday before going out and pacing the second Sprint Cup practice, the memory of his crash at Indianapolis two weeks ago a stark reminder of how quickly a big advantage in points can vanish. "It's important for us, if we can't win this race, to be really solid, get a good solid finish."
What is most impressive about Gordon's nine road course wins is that the first six were in succession, starting at Watkins Glen in 1997 and ending here three years later.
"That's incredibly amazing," said Rusty Wallace, who finished his Cup career with six road wins. "I can't believe anybody did that, but he did. You get on a roll, man."
"It's pretty remarkable," added NASCAR icon Richard Petty, also a six-time road course winner. "That was a crowning deal as far as road racing is concerned."
The streak might have reached seven, but a hard-charging Gordon, who was inside the top five early in the 2000 race at The Glen, was involved in a wreck with Tony Stewart while speeding up through the esses and never was a factor. Their post-race confrontation in the garage afterward remains one of the signature moments since the Cup series began racing regularly at Watkins Glen in 1986.
"We were really on top of our game at that time," said Gordon, who credited crew chief Ray Evernham for much of that success. "Early on, I just remember wanting to take on every challenge as a team, to improve to be a bigger threat to the championship. We worked hard at it, and that hard work paid off. Back then, you had to try to be good everywhere because every track mattered. It was something that we pursued heavily. I enjoyed it, even though I didn't grow up road racing."
Gordon hasn't won here since 2001 and has not triumphed at either road course NASCAR races at since a win at Sonoma in 2006.
It's not as if Gordon hasn't had his chances. He won the pole here a year ago, besting road race ace Marcos Ambrose for the top spot, and led nearly a third of the 90-lap race before an electrical problem just past the midpoint spoiled his day.
In 2007, Gordon had the lead with two laps to go with Stewart pressing and spun out entering the first turn, handing Stewart an unexpected victory.
"We've had great performances that didn't show up in the stats," the four-time Cup champion said. "I think when you look at the drivers and teams — who's at the top of the list — I think if you can add a road course win to it, it puts you in an elite group."
Stewart, second to Gordon with seven road course wins, is back at Watkins Glen after missing the previous two Cup races at the track in the Finger Lakes of upstate New York. He was nursing a broken right leg two years ago and sat out last year's race after the sprint car he was driving in a race at nearby Canandaigua struck and killed 20-year-old driver Kevin Ward Jr. on Aug. 9, 2014, the night before Stewart was scheduled to race at Watkins Glen.
On Friday, attorneys representing the Ward family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Stewart, another hurdle in what has been a season without much hope until recently. Stewart qualified well at Indianapolis two weeks ago and ran OK until pit strategy ruined his chance at a good finish, and last week at Pocono he qualified well again but ran out of fuel at the end and finished ninth.
A moment of silence for Ward is planned Saturday at Canandaigua Motorsports Park and the anniversary of his death is race day on Sunday. The three-time NASCAR champion, who has a record five wins at Watkins Glen, hasn't won in 62 races, a streak that dates to Dover in June 2013, before he broke the leg.
He'll try to focus on ending that streak. It won't be easy.
"I'm trying to not think about it," Stewart said at a midweek appearance in Texas. "The easiest way to move forward and not linger on the tragedy is to put together a strong weekend on the track."