August 11, 2012 | By Bruce Martin
Gordon Hopes To Continue Rapid Road To Chase At Watkins Glen
Jeff Gordon has earned the nickname “Four-Time” for more reasons than one.
When he won his third Brickyard 400 in 2001, it catapulted him to his fourth NASCAR Cup title that season. Gordon became another “Four-Time” when he drove to his fourth Brickyard 400 victory in 2004 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, becoming the first driver to reach that milestone.
Gordon already became a legend at IMS by winning the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994.
But since Gordon scored his fourth Cup title in 2001, he has gone 10 seasons without another championship. And for most of the 2012 season, it looked like Gordon would be shut out this year’s “Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.” He was without a win and out of the top 10 in points, so it looked like Gordon would be one big-name driver missing the 12-driver, 10-race segment of races that would determine this season’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.
That is what makes Gordon’s rain-shortened victory in the Pennsylvania 500 last Sunday at Pocono Raceway so huge. Not only was it his first win this season, but it thrust him into contention for one of the two wild-card positions in the “The Chase” that go to drivers in positions 11-20 that have the most victories.
Gordon is up to 13th in the standings as he arrived at Watkins Glen International this weekend for the second and final road course race of the season. He is just eight points out of 12th, but the win gives him the final spot in “The Chase” at this point.
With five races remaining until the cutoff race for the Chase Sept. 8 at Richmond International Raceway, another victory by Gordon probably will clinch him a spot in “That Chase.”
A great place to start would be at Watkins Glen, where Gordon has four wins, six top-five and nine top-10 finishes in 19 starts at the road course nestled among the Finger Lakes region of Western New York. From 1997-99, Gordon won three-straight races at The Glen and got his fourth win there in 2001 making “Four Time” another four-time winner.
But since 2008, Gordon has finishes of 29th, 37th, 10th and 13th at The Glen.
If “Four Time” can become a five-time winner at Watkins Glen this weekend, it could catapult him on his way to contending for a fifth Cup title.
“I am very optimistic and excited about this weekend, but just because we won here however many years ago it was doesn’t mean that my confidence is sky-high here because I don’t feel like we’ve been good enough to win here in recent years,” Gordon said Friday at The Glen. “That confidence definitely got a big boost in Sonoma and our road course test that we did in Road Atlanta prior to Sonoma. I feel like we have made some big gains that are definitely going to help my confidence here.
“Qualifying is a priority for us; we’ve got to qualify better. We’ve been qualifying better up until Pocono last week. Even there, I felt like we had a top -10 car if I hadn’t pushed it quite so hard. That is good. We’ve got to keep that up and even get better with the qualifying. One race at a time, but certainly thinking about what we can do better and what we have learned on the things we have done not so good and stay solid over these next five weeks and put ourselves in position to hopefully get a win.”
Nothing boosts a driver’s confidence more than winning, and that is why last week’s victory at Pocono was so very important.
“It has been a great week,” Gordon said Friday at The Glen. “We put ourselves in the right place at the right time, which is something that hasn’t happened for us this season much. It’s great that we were able to capitalize on that. Of course, the weather and all those things like I said it all went our way. Not thinking a whole lot about the wild card because I just think there is far too much racing left to go. It was great to get that win; that definitely gives us a shot at it, but now we’ve got to come here and focus on getting the job done here and the next four weeks. If we do our jobs right, I think we can make it in.”
As the leader of the team, Gordon has done a great job boosting the spirits of the No. 24 crew along with his crew chief, Alan Gustafson.
“The good thing is that I think what Alan and I have had coming into the crew chief/driver combination that happened at the beginning of last year, was that we always seem to be on the same page,” Gordon said. “We get along really well, and we’ve been able to build that. It certainly helped last year getting the three wins and being as competitive as we were. Over the offseason, we just made a commitment to one another that were after the same goals, we enjoy working with one another and believe in one another through thick and thin. We might have had a couple of glasses of wine while that conversation was happening, but we meant what we said. Certainly, at that point, we didn’t realize we were going to be challenged quite the way we have been this year.”
There are plenty of “Brickyard Legends” who will be in this year’s “Chase for the Championship” by the time the final 12 drivers at determined at Richmond, including a driver already nicknamed “Five Time” after winning five-straight Cup titles. He also won at the Brickyard two weeks ago.
“Jimmie Johnson is the guy you've got to worry about, I think, right now,” Gordon said of his teammate. “And Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. I think that Junior has not maybe led as many laps, or won as many races at Jimmie, but yet there is a reason why they are where they are at in the points. They've been consistently up front every weekend. They are rock-solid.
“You have to look at Hendrick as a whole I think right now. I think any Hendrick team, but hard to not be a little nervous about Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and that No. 48 team right now as dominant as they have been and as strong as they have been. You get them in the Chase with that kind of performance, and I would think they'd be at the top of anybody's worry list.”
Reigning Brickyard winner Johnson is another proven road course driver and is fourth in the standings heading to WGI – one of the few tracks where he never has won.
“The thing that gets me at The Glen so much is really fuel mileage,” Johnson said. “My driving style requires us to stop usually an additional time, and I don’t know how to run a fast enough pace and save fuel at the same time there. It really gets me. I think back to a Nationwide race where I was driving Junior’s car and ran out (of fuel) with a few laps to go. It just happens to me there more than really anywhere. So, I’m hopeful that the EFI (electronic fuel injection) and the functionality of the EFI will help me there. And we’re working hard. We tested two days ago, getting ready for The Glen. So we’re putting in the whole effort. Hopefully I can be nice on the fuel mileage.”
Although Earnhardt has never won at the Brickyard, he scored the highest finish of his IMS career this year when he was fourth. He heads to The Glen as the leader of the Cup standings and looks forward to the challenges of road racing.
“With me and a road course, it’s a lottery,” Earnhardt said. “I’ve had some good runs at Watkins Glen and had some fast cars there. When we went there in 2008 with Tony (Eury) Jr., we rained out qualifying so we started up front and we led quite a good portion. We were really fast. I know I can go around there. It’s just straightaway, turn, straightaway, turn, and that’s really what I’ve been doing all my life. It’s a lot easier than Sonoma, a lot less technical. We showed up at the Road Atlanta test last week with the same problems as Sonoma and the same disappointment with the car. Then we made a lot of changes, and a few of the changes, in particular, revolutionized the way the car drove and the way it felt. The stopwatch was way faste, so I’m excited.
“I’ve been real happy to go to all the racetracks this year. I particularly don’t look forward to going to Sonoma and Watkins Glen as much as I do the ovals, but I’m excited about Watkins Glen this trip. Hopefully we can go there and be competitive.”
Another great driver at Watkins Glen is Indiana’s own Tony Stewart – a two-time Brickyard winner and three-time Cup champion who is sixth in the standings. He is a five-time Cup winner at The Glen, most recently in 2009.
“It’s a race that we always look forward to,” Stewart said. “We’ve had a lot of success there, and it’s just fun. It’s like taking Sonoma and just multiplying the speed times three. It’s just a lot faster track. It still has the same elevation changes, but you’re just running a lot quicker. Both Sonoma and Watkins Glen are two places on the schedule that we really enjoy coming to.
“When you’ve won five races, it gives you that confidence that you know how to win, and know what you have to do to get to victory lane. I know what feel I need when we get here. It’s just a matter of going out and practicing and putting yourself in that position.”
And then there is Kevin Harvick, who won the Brickyard in 2003 and won at The Glen in 2006. He is ninth in the standings.
“Watkins Glen (International) is really fast, so the biggest thing there is to get your car good under braking so you can make passes during the race,” Harvick said. “Usually you can gain the most time is in the braking zones.”