Jeff Gordon has won races at Pocono Raceway in about every fashion possible. He's flat out dominated, like the races in 1998 and 2011, he's won it from overcoming adversity such as the case in 1997, and he's won it by being lucky, using smart pit and track strategy to beat the field and outwit Mother Nature in 2012. To say the least, despite this track's moniker as "The Tricky Triangle," Gordon and his No. 24 team have found the keys to success with figuring out how to negotiate around this high speed, treacherous track in Long Pond, PA. Entering this weekend, the 42-year-old Vallejo, CA native finds himself sitting in second place with the overall points battle, with a bit of a blip, courtesy of a 15th place finish at last Sunday's FedEx 400 at Dover International Speedway.
Despite that shaky result, Gordon, a four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, has been off to a tremendous start in 2014, with a brilliant victory at Kansas Speedway last month alongside five top-five finishes and nine top-10's through 13 races. Each week, the No. 24 Drive To End Hunger/AARP Real Possibilities Chevrolet SS has been a major factor, prevalently towards the front of the pack and often challenging for victories. So why after a few seasons of respectable but somewhat not so noticeable years later has Gordon become a factor again for wins and this year's championship?
Consider this: Crew chief Alan Gustafson has exhibited some confidence atop the pit box, working in conjunction with his crew at the shop and on the track to unload fast cars right off the hauler. Seldom have we seen shades of 2012 and '13, where they were an afterthought in most events, as this team has dug deep, battled hard, and displays the vibrant "Refuse To Lose" attitude that defined those championship winning efforts in 1995, '97-'98, and '01. Criticized when the team falls short of victory, during successful times, Gustafson rarely receives those praises, but he's certainly been a tremendous factor for Gordon's resurgence and best start since 2007.
Bold pit calls nearly got them some checkered flags at Texas and Charlotte, with two tire changes putting the No. 24 car in at least a position to win after hovering inside the top-10 at those races. Fast cars at Fontana and Richmond come to mind, where they were one long green flag run away from collecting the trophy. All season long, the familiar red, black, and silver colored No. 24 Chevy has been a constant presence in the lead pack, much like those days when it was the "Rainbow Warriors" colors from DuPont (now Axalta) dominating in the 1990's. Most importantly, they've busted off some tremendously fast pit stops, which was a deciding factor for the win at Kansas last month.
This weekend is a golden opportunity for Gordon and Team 24 to score a second win in 2014, which if they're able to get the victory at Pocono on Sunday afternoon, will at least put them in the Chase Grid points lead. Only a trio of drivers have been able to claim a pair of race trophies this season, as Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, and Jimmie Johnson are the only racers who've been repeat winners.
Certainly, a win for Gordon will be tremendous, considering that it's been three years since he's won multiple races this early into a season and Pocono Raceway's top driver in terms of most victories at this 2.5-mile superspeedway. With 19 top-five finishes and 29 top-10's through 42 starts, it's safe to see why Gordon is perhaps the odds-on favorite to win at Pocono on Sunday afternoon.
Gordon's six wins at Pocono almost represent different eras of NASCAR racing, as the wins in '96-'98 represented the golden era for the sport while the '07, '11-'12 triumphs were during stock car's transition through different generation of vehicles. A win on Sunday could make this "old" man feel 25 all over again, especially in a time in which the cars are faster, the competition is tighter, and even Pocono Raceway has a Tunnel Turn makeover with the famous curb in the second corner removed.
While one cannot teach an old dog new tricks, this is one driver and team where no matter how the cars, track, or competition has evolved, there's been one constant in NASCAR, at least since November 15, 1992: the driver behind the wheel of the No. 24 car, who's certainly still got some fight and fire left in him after all these years.