Jeff Gordon chases milestone victories, 5th championship despite back pain

Jeff Gordon turned a nostalgic weekend at the Brickyard into a powerful reminder that he can still win NASCAR's biggest races.

Oh, and a fifth championship.

But for all the proof that Gordon is still a driver to contend with in a championship push, he realizes he's not in the same physical condition when he won his first Brickyard in 1994. Gordon turns 43 on Monday with an achy back that he feels when settling behind the wheel of the No. 24 Chevrolet.

"It's not great, that's for sure," Gordon said.

Gordon hasn't been the same since he felt consistent, shooting back pain before the Coca-Cola 600 in May. He cut short his practice sessions, had treatments and needed a standby driver.

Gordon had serious issues years ago in his lower spine and returned to full strength thanks to anti-inflammatory medication and workouts with a trainer. He drove in pain during a winless 2008 season and briefly contemplated retirement.

For all his back woes, Gordon said he never felt the stabbing pain like he did at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

"I don't think my back is ever going to be the same after what happened at Charlotte," Gordon said. "I don't know what exactly transpired there, but it's not the same. And I have to be much more careful. I'm just having to treat it more with ice and (stimulation) and be more careful and do more stretching. Is it going to flare-up again? It could. But I'm just trying to be more cautious with the things that I do that I feel like contribute to that."

Gordon never showed any signs of discomfort last weekend at Indy, pulling away from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne on the final restart to win for the second time this season. Gordon holds the points lead heading into Sunday's race at Pocono Raceway, where he's a six-time winner.

Gordon and Kahne staged a similar battle in last August's race at Pocono. Unlike last week at Indy, Kahne won the restart and the race. Cruising from the outside, Kahne got the jump he needed, zipped past Gordon and pulled away with two laps left for the win.

Kahne is winless this season and badly needs one if he wants to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field. Kahne led 70 laps and had the car to beat at Indy until his late fade ended with a sixth-place finish and his car out of fuel.

"It was the first time of the season we have put a full race together," Kahne said. "From me driving to them on pit road to pit calls, everything about it was right. That is something that we haven't done this year. We haven't even come close to doing that."

He could be in the mix Sunday — along with Gordon, and Hendrick drivers Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. The drivers have won the last four races at the track.

Here are five things to know about Pocono Raceway:

SWEEP CITY: Dale Earnhardt Jr. is trying to become the first driver to sweep Pocono since Denny Hamlin in 2006. Earnhardt will attempt to capture the second season sweep of his career and first since Talladega in 2002.

POCONO ANNIVERSARY: Richard Petty won the first NASCAR race held on the tri-oval track — the Purolator 500 — on Aug. 4, 1974. The second race of each season was added to the schedule in 1982. There have been 73 NASCAR Cup races at Pocono. Entering this weekend, 322 drivers have competed in at least one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Pocono Raceway; 222 in more than one. Jeff Gordon leads all drivers with six wins and 32 different drivers have captured the checkered flag.

JOHNSON SLUMP: With six Sprint Cup championships, Jimmie Johnson's definition of a slump is always a bit skewed compared to the rest of the field. Johnson is in a minor one headed into Pocono. He had consecutive 42nd-place finishes at Daytona and New Hampshire because of wrecks and only finished 14th last week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, traditionally one of his best tracks. Johnson finished sixth in the first Pocono race, the only time he didn't win in a four-race span (Charlotte, Dover and Michigan). "We are not running as well as we need to," crew chief Chad Knaus said. "I think everybody knows that. We have had some struggles this year. We've won a few races, which is great. But on a consistent level we are not as fast as what we want to be. Quite honestly I don't think anybody is." Johnson has three career wins at Pocono.

CREW CHIEF: Denny Hamlin will have a new crew chief at Pocono after NASCAR penalized Joe Gibbs Racing for rules violations at the Brickyards. Darian Grubb and car Wesley Sherrill were both suspended through the Sept. 6 race at Richmond. Grubb, the crew chief, was also fined $125,000. Team engineer Mike Wheeler will fill in as the crew chief. Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth are among the drivers who have won races with their regular crew chief sitting home. Kenseth, who won last year at Darlington without Jason Ratcliff, said there are so many ways to communicate with the suspended chief, that it doesn't hamper a team like it did years ago. "You're still missing your head coach. The guy who leads the people and gets them together and talks strategy and you're still not looking in his eyes and talking face to face and doing all of that kind of stuff," Kenseth said. "I think it's not as hard as it was at one time, but I think certainly you'd still want him here."

D4D: Kyle Larson's Pocono pole helped bring attention to NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program. Larson became the first graduate of Drive to win a Sprint Cup pole. Larson's mother is Japanese and his father is of Native American descent. Larson competed under the NASCAR D4D banner in 2012. Created in 2004, drivers competed for NASCAR approved and supported developmental teams throughout the United States. The initiative has evolved, and drivers now race for one team, Rev Racing, and have been since 2010.