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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Meet Jeff Gordon – the underdog (who also happens to be a 4-time champ)

When I fell in love with NASCAR, there was always one guy who kept ruining my day … and his name was Jeff Gordon. This Rainbow Warrior stunk up the show more often than I can remember, whether I was watching in person at the track or at home on television.

The late 1990s were his time to shine, and by 2001 he had racked up his fourth Cup title.

Then, thankfully for the sport, other drivers started to win the Cup. Prior to the ridiculously long reign of Jimmie Johnson, there was actually some question about who might take home the title in the first half of the 2000s decade.

If you had told me in 2001 that I’d be watching Jeff Gordon be cheered by fans as an underdog in the future, I would have laughed. But it happened at Phoenix.
Heading into Phoenix, Gordon had not won a race in almost two years. Unlike his nonstop winning of the past – which is now been taken over by his protégé Jimmie Johnson – Gordon has far too often been unable to close the deal. He runs good and finishes high pretty regularly, but can’t seem to deliver in the end.

But at Phoenix, the Gordon of old reappeared. I knew something was up when he passed Johnson, a rare sight lately. Then, as the race’s end neared, he was oh-so-close to leader Kyle Busch, who was just laps from another three-race weekend sweep and had plenty of incentive to hang on to the lead.

But as he closed in on Busch, I felt a strange thing going on inside – I actually kind of hoped he would pull it off, and was glad when he did.
Why? Because we all like an underdog, and let’s face it – that’s what Jeff Gordon has become, and a Gordon win might be even more popular now than it would have been in his championship years.

Sure, he has four titles and drives for the best team in NASCAR at Hendrick Motorsports. But that doesn’t mean that things haven’t changed since his glory days.
Even though he’s still one of the best drivers on the track, it’s no question that Jeff Gordon winning a bunch of races and contending legitimately for his fifth Cup would be a huge deal and a major comeback story.

Guys like Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and other drivers win races all the time, but in the past few years Jeff Gordon doesn’t … (though new crew chief Alan Gustafson will do his best to change that, and has a good chance to do so.).

And the reaction to this Phoenix win shows that just because you’ve won a lot of races and titles doesn’t mean you can’t still be the feel-good story years down the road. A lot of those people complaining with me about Gordon 10 years ago might actually be his fans now.

Phoenix, Las Vegas notes
-- Gordon’s Phoenix triumph tied him with Cale Yarborough for fifth on the all-time wins list. His next win would tie him with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for third – behind only David Pearson (105 wins) and Richard Petty (200). Gordon spoke about tying Yarborough; click here to listen.
-- In breaking a 66-race winless drought, Gordon has now won at least one race in 16 of his 19 full-time seasons. In 14 of those, he won multiple races.
-- Gordon took the lead for good at Phoenix on lap 304 – the 28th lead change of the race. That makes two consecutive races where the lead-change record crumbled.
-- At Las Vegas, hometown hero Kyle Busch has seven starts, a win in 2009, three top fives and four top 10s.
-- In 10 races, brother Kurt Busch is winless with one top five and two top 10s. His best finish was third in 2005. He has struggled of late there. His last four finishes: 26th (2007), 38th (2008), 23rd (2009) and 35th (2010).

Martin making Nationwide appearance
Mark Martin, who once dominated the Nationwide series whenever he made an appearance and racked up 48 wins, returns this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Kyle Busch is only a handful of races from topping Martin’s win total, and that will likely happen this year. But if Martin can pull out a win this weekend, he can at least delay the inevitable.

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