Jeff Gordon longs for the good old days.
The four-time NASCAR champion doesn’t think his best days are behind him, just that he would practically be a lock for another title if it weren’t for the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship.
Before the Chase was instituted in 2004, every race on the schedule counted toward the championship and Gordon’s 371-point lead over Denny Hamlin heading into Sunday’s race at Pocono – the 21st of 36 races – would mean only a collapse of major proportions could have derailed another championship bid.
Instead, under the Chase format, the first 26 races are considered the regular season and the final 10 make up the championship battle for the top 12 drivers.
Once they get past Richmond on Sept. 8, the points for each of the dozen contenders will be evened at 5,000, with an additional 10-point bonus for each regular-season win the only edge available.
But Gordon, who has four wins this season, isn’t worried – even though he knows it’s tougher to win a title now.
“... I understand what it takes in those last 10 to be good,” said Gordon, whose last title came in 2001. “You’ve got to have good fortune going your way and you have to have fast race cars.
“We’ve been doing that consistently, so I still feel really good about the championship.”
He has been amazingly consistent so far this season.
Coming off a solid third-place finish last Sunday at Indianapolis, Gordon, who will turn 36 on Saturday, has 13 top-fives and 18 top-10s in 20 starts.
The only time he has finished outside the top 10 since a 12th-place run at Atlanta in March – and the only time he has failed to finish a race this season – was in May at Charlotte, where he crashed out of the Coca-Cola 600 and finished 41st.
Not even losing suspended crew chief Steve Letarte for six races because of a technical violation in June at Sonoma has slowed Gordon down.
In the four races so far without Letarte, Gordon has finished second, fifth, ninth and third.
“I’m excited because we’ve got a very strong, consistent team and we don’t have a crew chief right now,” Gordon said. “I think when Steve comes back, it’s only going to heighten us and make us stronger for what we’ve had to go through without him.”
If Gordon has any concern at all it’s that all four of his wins this season came during a seven-week stretch that began at Phoenix in April and ended at Pocono in June. That means he has gone six races without visiting Victory Lane.
With just six races until the start of the Chase, Gordon said his team is mostly focused on getting more wins to get a step up on competition for the start of the postseason.
“Bonus points is what it’s all about for us,” he said.
“That means we have to be risky. You know we can afford to lose some points by taking bigger risks and possibly getting those bonus points and wins, and that momentum that we really need.”
Also on Gordon’s mind is Tony Stewart. The two-time Cup champion has begun one of his traditional second-half hot streaks.
After struggling with all kinds of bad luck through the first half of the season, Stewart suddenly is the winner of two straight races and looking like Gordon’s main competition come September.
Even after NASCAR docked Stewart 25 points – and fined him $25,000 – this week for cursing during a postrace TV interview at Indy, he is fifth in the standings. If the Chase began this week, those two wins would mean Stewart would be just 20 points behind Gordon going into the last 10 races.
“You know they’re a strong team,” Gordon said. “Because of the Chase, you know, anybody is a threat for the championship, especially if they’re showing strong runs and winning races at this point in the season.
“I know we’re going to have to beat Tony, among other guys. You know, I still think that we’re a little bit more consistent than them, but I think right now they’ve got a little bit of an edge on us in speed and we’ve got to find it. We’ve got to get after that.”