CONCORD, N.C. -- Jeff Gordon is the second-oldest competitor in a Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup he made only after being granted a historic exemption as a 13th-place driver. He's nearly a year removed from his most recent race victory, and over a decade removed from his most recent championship.
Given all that, there seemed no way the Hendrick Motorsports stalwart would be a real factor in this year's title hunt. And yet he is -- and right now, he might be the most confident driver in the whole playoff field to boot.
"I might be 42 years old and have been in this sport a long time, and barely made it in the Chase, but put us in that moment with a car that handles like that, and I'm going to give it everything we've got," Gordon said after winning the Coors Light Pole for Saturday night's playoff race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "So we've really come together as a team."
That much seemed clear Thursday night, when Gordon's bomb of a qualifying run topped the speed chart and continued a strong run in a Chase he wasn't even in to begin with. NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France added Gordon to the playoff as a 13th participant following a race manipulation scandal centering on the Michael Waltrip Racing teams in the regular-season finale at Richmond, and the four-time series champion has taken advantage by inserting himself right into the mix.
He still has some work to do to close the gap on leader Matt Kenseth, who leads Jimmie Johnson by three points and has a 25-point edge on third-place Kevin Harvick. But right behind is Gordon, 32 down and riding a wave of confidence and momentum in a playoff he had originally missed by one point before fate and circumstance intervened.
"I can tell you, I'm feeling better every race," Gordon said. "I really thought that we really started making ground up weeks prior to Richmond. ? Every week that we can lead laps and run up front just builds confidence that we can win races and put together some great runs and performances to get the points that we need. So every week, we're just gaining confidence. At this point, it's just going all out, giving it everything we've got. We're not really thinking about points, we're just trying to win races and get the best finishes that we can. Right now, we're just having fun."
Understandably so, given that Gordon is enjoying perhaps his best stretch of the season at the best possible time. It's no real surprise that Harvick is one of those trying to chase down the two leaders, given that the Richard Childress Racing driver has a trio of wins -- most recently last week at Kansas -- and was solidly in Chase position all year. But Gordon? For him this was another uneven season of living on the bubble, one where he could never really mount the charge needed to put him over the top. One year after barely making the Chase, this time he barely missed it.
Or so we thought, until France -- weighing the impact of perceived manipulation that left Gordon as an odd man out -- overrode the rule book by his own authority to put the popular Hendrick driver in. It all happened just as the No. 24 team was finding its footing, recording three straight top-10s to end the regular season and carrying that momentum into the Chase. Gordon's third-place run last Sunday at Kansas was his third finish of sixth or better in four playoff starts.
"These guys have stuck with me all year long, at times when I was frustrated, and I know they were frustrated with me, that I didn't feel like I was getting the most out of it. But I think they knew they needed to make some adjustments themselves on the setups. We've come together. That's all I can say. We've come together," Gordon said.
"Our cars are just performing better, and now we're able to build some positive confidence and momentum that we were lacking earlier in the season. I know it's just qualifying, but (winning the pole) is huge. I see the look on my guys' faces when we come out of a race and we're passing cars and driving to the front, like Chicago. We went to the back, but we were driving up through there and had a very fast race car. And those guys were fired up over that."
Gordon admitted it was difficult at times to maintain confidence when the team was struggling as a whole. They too often lagged behind in qualifying, which cost them track position, which cost them over the course of a race. But through the summer the No. 24 team made improvements, and adjusted setups to better suit Gordon's driving style, and in August something seemed to click. His pole at Richmond was his first in 34 races. Charlotte was his second in six weeks.
"The reason that I'm like this now is because we never gave up," he said. "That is why I give this team a lot of credit -- they really stepped up. Our setups are just suiting my driving style and the things that I like to feel in the car. The cars are just giving me good feedback, and it's because they work so hard through the summer to make improvements, watching what other teams are doing, learning from our teammates as well as just applying ourselves in the things that we are doing. Each week now I'm just building that confidence, because those cars are giving me that confidence."
His pole at Charlotte -- his second at the 1.5-mile facility in the last decade -- was a manifestation of it all.
"The car builds confidence in me. And when we go out there and win a pole, it builds confidence back in the team," Gordon said. "There's nothing greater than when it's all on the line, all the pressure is there, you're the final car to go, you've had a great practice. There's nothing worse then letting them down, and there's nothing better than stepping up and knocking it out of the park. That's what we did ? and it makes me feel good, because I know those guys are fired up for this race, and for every race from here on out. It's great to have everybody believing in one another like we do right now."
Now the challenge is to build on it, at a track where Gordon hasn't won since 2007. That victory in the fall race is his lone triumph in a Charlotte points event since 1999, and his recent history here has been less than spectacular -- only one finish better than 18th in his last six starts.
But hey, he's not even supposed to be in this playoff, and here he is, running as well as he has all season and determined to get in there amid Kenseth and Johnson and have his say. What's one more obstacle to overcome?
"Those guys are strong, and tough, and great race teams," Gordon said. "It's going to be tough this weekend, and going to be tough every weekend. So they're going to be hard to beat. But it's going to take performances like Kevin had last week, and like we had (Thursday) night to make up ground on those guys. But it's possible. No doubt, it's possible."
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