After picking up career win No. 84 to tie him with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for third on NASCAR's all-time wins list, Jeff Gordon was asked where he thinks he ranks among the sport's greats.
"I'm going to be 40, but I'm not in the rocking chair yet," Gordon replied after his win Sunday at Pocono Raceway. "I haven't thought about it a lot, and I don't know if I want to."
For the most part, Gordon has been written off as a championship contender – a reality he may not be comfortable with, but one he understands. It's what happens when you're no longer winning a lot of races and you haven't won a championship since 2001.
But just because no one else is putting Gordon and championship in the same sentence, it doesn't mean he isn't. It took someone telling him that he'd tied Allison and Waltrip before he realized he'd done it, and when asked to comment on his own greatness, he said his focus was on Tuesday's debriefing and getting ready for next weekend's race at Michigan.
While everyone else is contemplating his legacy, Gordon, a four-time champion, is focused on his drive for five.
"Being in the Chase, at 40 years old, is not enough," said Gordon, who turns 40 in August. "I want to be a threat for the championship. I'm not saying we're there. But today is definitely a big step in getting us there."
The confidence comes from being a threat all day. Gordon didn't need pit strategy or fuel mileage to work his way to the front. He got there because he had a stout race car and fantastic pit stops. He ran in the top five for nearly the entire race, took control with 39 laps to go and from there sailed to the win, his second of the season.
"I'll take any fuel-mileage [win] when I can get it," crew chief Alan Gustafson said, "[but] you want to win the race being the fastest car, and that's what we did."
Two wins should be good enough to get Gordon into the Chase via the wild card. Only three other drivers – Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth – have multiple victories this season, and all three are comfortably in the top 10 in points. Gordon is now 11th, six points behind Ryan Newman in 10th.
As for Gordon's legacy, he's been in rare air for more than a decade, but the lean years – just one win between Oct. 13, 2007 and Feb. 27, 2011 – have conjugated talk of his greatness from present to past tense. Gordon has even had to field questions about his retirement.
To his credit, he always handles those inquiries with pure class, something the bulk of us would have trouble doing if others were trying to put our careers in the ground. Gordon gets that it's just part of the game and that it's up to him to stop people from asking those sorts of questions.
"We just have not put the numbers together, so I don't expect anybody to look at us as a real threat," Gordon said. "Days like today, to me, give us that confidence and momentum and show the competition that, you know, they might need to start worrying about us again. But we got to do that consistently to show that. That's why people fear [Jimmie Johnson]."
Consistency hasn't been Gordon's strong suit, not this season anyway. His win earlier this year to snap a 66-race winless streak led to a string of eight finishes outside the top 10 in 10 races. He finally broke through last weekend with a strong fourth-place finish at Kansas, and having followed that run up with a victory posted back-to-back top-5 finishes for the first time since last July.
When he gets his next win, Gordon will move into sole possession of third place on NASCAR's all-time wins list, and for him it will be special. But he's not into celebrating career milestones, not yet anyway, not when he's got more pressing business to take care of.
"I'm just not there yet," he said. "My mindset right now is split between doing everything I can to give [Gustafson] my best, to be the best dad and husband that I can be, and take care of our sponsors. I just don't have time to think about those things."
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