Driving To Contention: Jeff Gordon Mounting Charge for NASCAR Championship
Ready or not racing fans, an old familiar face has emerged back into the big picture for NASCAR's ultimate prize.
After climbing out of his No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, Jeff Gordon nearly accomplished what seemed like climbing a steep mountain - he nearly won at Bristol Motor Speedway.
While it wasn't a victory at the "new" Bristol, a third-place finish capped off a solid month of August for the 40-year-old racer. Suddenly, they've emerged from outside the top-10 in early June to a tie for fifth position in the points standings heading into next Sunday night's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Save for a somewhat middling 13th at Watkins Glen, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson have reeled off a summer stretch that's only been overshadowed by the likes of Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski. Just this month alone, he placed second at Indianpolis, sixth at Pocono, sixth at Michigan, and third at Bristol.
Most teams would be content with those strong performances, but this team is truly looking to end their "drive to end hunger" in the only convincing way - that's with wins and a fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
"I'm very excited about our race team," Gordon said per NASCAR.com's David Caraviello's article. "We've been running really strong, been leading a lot of laps, running up front at the big races. To me, the most impressive thing about my racing was what improvement we made from the spring at this track to this evening."
Consider the fact that Gordon was a non-factor in the spring with a 14th at Bristol and it goes to show the kinds of improvements that the No. 24 team have made since the early spring. This isn't a team that'll take a good finish and have it at that.
Instead, this is a group that wants to be the very best in the series and they're making strides as a unit to make that goal attainable.
Perhaps for the first time since even the 2001 season, Gordon and company have the makings of a championship winning group.
That's not to take away those strong efforts from 2004, '07 or '09. Surely, those were good years too, but they ultimately fell short of what all teams battle hard for after a 36-race season: the championship.
Crew chief Alan Gustafson is fully intent on delivering a fifth championship for Gordon, as he said, "I think it's pretty obvious to me that consistently every week, we're a car that runs up front. But you've got to convert, and that's what we've got to work on."
Bristol sure had the makings for Gordon's 85th Cup career win and his third victory of 2011, but a late-race pit stop coupled with brilliant pit strategy by Brad Keselowski's and Martin Truex Jr's teams ultimately relegated them to a podium finish position.
Couple that with what they felt was a pit road speeding issue and they're left with a third-place finish that's left them very hungry heading into Atlanta next Sunday night.
Gordon and Gustafson felt that the timing lines on pit road were too far apart, which allowed, in their opinion, their fellow competitors to gain enough space to speed a little after their stops.
Still, there's reason for this team to believe that they will contend heading into the Chase, which will be their seventh appearance in the eight years of the new title hunt format.
Under the current title system, drivers will be seeded according to the number of wins they scored in the "regular season" while the last two seeds are "wild card entries."
Their two wins place them in fourth position as of now, although a red hot Brad Keselowski might drop them to the fifth spot if he continues his torrid streak in the next two weeks.
When all is said and done, the battle for this year's Sprint Cup title will undoubtedly involve Jeff Gordon and his No. 24 Chevy team.
Just as their car's liveries feature, they look to end their hunger for their "drive for five" with a title hoisted in Homestead-Miami Speedway in mid-November.