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KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Jeff Gordon has been fast this year just about every time he climbs into that car. He has had promising runs just about every time he's taken the green flag.
He is still trying to find his way victory lane.
Good thing the Sprint Cup series is at Kansas Speedway this weekend. Gordon knows exactly where to find it, winning the first two races ever held there and again last spring.
"I remember coming here, this place was just natural in how I drove the track, and still is, even after the repave," Gordon said, reflecting on the inaugural race that he won in 2001.
"Every time I drive into the corner, I like this place, like the way it flows, like the way the car feels," he said. "I just feel like I know this track every well."
Gordon's farewell season began on the pole at the season-opening Daytona 500, but the day ended with the first of several miscues that have made for a frustrating year. Despite having one of the fastest cars, and leading 77 laps, a wreck left him in 33rd place.
At Martinsville, Gordon took the lead with 58 laps to go, only to get penalized for speeding on pit road. He barely managed to sneak back into the top 10.
Then last week at Talladega, Gordon again started on the pole and was running up front with the rest of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates. But on a track where he'd won six times, and should be intimately familiar with just about everything, the four-time champion once again made an inexplicable blunder as he entered pit road.
Gordon was dinged for speeding, just like at Martinsville. He was shuffled to the back and finished 31st, while teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. roared to the win.
Gordon took the blame for the mistake, an egregious one by his standards, but soon turned his focus to Saturday night's race at Kansas. Gordon won the inaugural night race last year, and also had a strong run during last year's Chase race before finishing 14th.
"It's been a good track for us," Gordon said, "ever since we first came here."
Gordon's final full schedule in a Sprint Cup car has offered him several opportunities to reminisce, and he did so again while meeting with reporters on Friday morning.
His first trip to the newly opened Kansas Speedway came late in the 2001 season, several months after Dale Earnhardt was killed at Daytona. There was a pall over the entire series that season, Gordon recalled, which made his fourth championship a bit bittersweet.
"It was a tough year for us as a sport," Gordon said. "That was a huge tragedy and somebody that meant a lot to the sport, but meant a lot to me. He was always so good to me."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. recalled how Gordon accepted the mantle from his father as the sport's biggest star, and helped to keep things from falling apart.
"I remember we were sort of looking around, who was going to be the guy to go up in that (NASCAR) hauler every week and talk some sense into those people? And that's the way we kind of looked at it," Earnhardt said. "From a driver's perspective, we were going to miss dad's vision and how that impacted the decisions they made in that hauler.
"Jeff," Earnhardt said, "was a guy that stepped up."
These days, Gordon remains the elder statesman of the series, and his return to a track he loves is a big story line. But there are several others worth watching:
— Will Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson continue to dominate mile-and-a-half tracks?
— Can Ryan Newman's team compete after NASCAR's suspension of crew chief Luke Lambert and two others in the garage for manipulating his tires during a race at California?
— Does Danica Patrick have a good showing in her for potential sponsors after the recent decision by GoDaddy to step away from the sport?
— And how will 18-year-old Erik Jones fare in his Sprint Cup debut in place of Kyle Busch, who is still recovering from the injuries he sustained at Daytona?
Speaking of Jones: He had just turned 5 when Gordon won that first race at Kansas.
"When he said he was retiring," Jones said, "I thought that was a bummer for me, because I would never get to run against him. But now getting this shot, I hope I can go out and race with him a little bit at some point."