Written by: Stephen Conley
April 10th, 2014
NASCAR’s radar for the 2014 season is either jammed packed full, or maybe it’s just jammed? With Drivers like Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano all visiting Victory Lane so far plus you add the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth that haven’t seen the promised land yet, it’s easy to understand why that radar might be a little jumbled up.
Yet still with all those drivers mentioned plus you could add a half dozen more easily, one of those that might not make that list right now because he is stealthed and flying well below radar coverage is 4-time Champion AND current points leader Jeff Gordon.
Wait, you ask how does a four time champ and the points leader fly under the radar—That is a good question, but ask yourself as look thru the results this season, the storylines this season and see how many times his name has popped up.
For Gordon, a 24 year veteran of NASCAR’s top series, the first seven races of a season have not always been his strong suit. Like Tony Stewart, he makes a mid-season charge and really hits more of a stride in following race ten. But in 2014 so far Gordon has done nothing but run up front, lead a few laps and finish races. In fact for Gordon he shares the stat at this moment of finishing every lap so far this season with Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards, who by the way sit second and third in points behind Gordon, but again…under the radar. Paul Menard and Brian Vickers sit inside the top ten and are the only two drivers in that position that have led fewer laps than Gordon
For Jeff Gordon to be sitting atop the points standings for the first time since the Coca-Cola 600 in 2009, and to be doing it following race seven of the season is a big feat in itself. Gordon’s average finish for the first 7 races thru-out his career has been just ok, a 13.5 average finishing position thru the first seven races. In 2014 so far Gordon holds a 7.4 average finishing position which is tops among the field, and considering the way things finished for him after leading late in California and struggling to regain track position at Martinsville which is statistically one of his top 3 tracks on the circuit, that average finish could be just staggering.
The 7.4 average finish is something to marvel over, but it’s not his best, in fact in Gordon’s career he has twice set up a streak of finishes in the first 7 races that are staggering. In 2007 he averaged a 5.0 thru the first seven and in 2009, even better with a 4.5 average finish.
Just like this season, he was running up front and finishing up front.
In 2009 for Gordon the troubles began in the next several races where three out of the next six races he finished off the lead lap which dropped him in points and struggled with to climb back up. He would find victory lane once that season which came in Texas in that 7th race, but it was not enough to secure a Championship
In 2007, one of Gordon’s better years he would reel off 6 wins and 3 of those six came after race number 7. In fact three out of the next four races Gordon would find his way to victory lane at Phoenix, Talladega and the same place he looks to continue his hot start in 2014—Darlington.
For Gordon heading into Darlington after a hot start is like coming home. Seven wins in 33 starts and if the competition is hoping for him to struggle, they may need to find a genie in a bottle and start making wishes as Gordon has only finished off the lead lap 10 times out of 33 starts. The rest of those, he finishes in the top ten.
Jeff Gordon has thrived at tracks that take patience and are not “typical” race tracks. Darlington, Martinsville, Dover, Bristol, the road courses. The higher the challenge, the better he does.
Jeff said “The first time I drove there, it reminded me of a couple of sprint car tracks – tracks like Winchester (Ind.) Speedway – that are super-fast but you have to respect it or it could ruin your day. Darlington is just a cool, fast place – you get that sensation of speed there because you run right up next to the wall. And the track ‘drives’ you.
It takes finesse to get around Darlington and Jeff Gordon has mastered that Skill. He went on to say, “At other places, we are typically trying to put the car in specific spots on the track, at Darlington, the track naturally ‘feeds’ you to a certain area which is right up next to the wall.”
So what is it that has led to his early season “under the radar” success? It’s hard to tell, new rules may have finally given the driver of the No. 24 Axalta/Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet a feel that he hasn’t had in the car in a while. Alan (Gustafson) and his team may be communicating better than they ever have, it certainly sounds that way if you listen to the in-car audio from Jeff and Alan.
Many things have come together, but in a year where NASCAR has put them emphasis on winning, and adusting the rules accordingly for drivers to make the “Chase”, Jeff Gordon and the No. 24 team are quietly having one of the most consistent starts to a season in his career. No matter what the challenge that is presented, this team is here to battle for a 5th Sprint Cup Championship and for Gordon, there is more than a win at stake…His pride is also on the line. He wants to go out on top and even though the fans and the media may have him under the radar Gordon says. “It’s good to b be someone whom no one is willing to count out as either a potential race winner or potential Champion.”
Not only does that pesky “drive for 5” continue into its 13th season, but the drive inside the man behind the wheel may just be fiercer than ever.
The spotlight may be casting a dim shadow on the driver of the No 24, but for Gordon, he may just like to keep it that way. Let the radar be jammed, let the spotlight shine elsewhere and when the bright lights of Homestead glimmer on the Championship trophy, Jeff Gordon is the one that may just step out of the shadows to hoist it.