FORT WORTH, Texas – Jeff Gordon has been brilliant this season. Maybe as brilliant as he's ever been, save 1998.
That season he won 13 times and posted an average finish of 5.7 over a 33-race schedule. It's a season that won't soon be duplicated.
Still, 2007 has been magical. Gordon has won six times and has an average finish of 7.4 – the second-best of his career. Arguably, he's having the second-best season of his career, yet here we are, three races from the finish, and Gordon is anything but a lock to win the championship.
When you're talking about Jeff Gordon – four-time champion, sixth on the all-time wins list – that's saying something.
This can mean only one of two things – either the driver in his rearview mirror is having an equally brilliant season or, in this new era predicated upon the Chase for the Nextel Cup, we need to entirely re-define what a truly great season is.
So let's examine it.
First, the driver in his rearview mirror, Jimmie Johnson, who trails Gordon by just nine points in the standings. Johnson, the defending Nextel Cup champion, is having a career season. He's won more races (8) than anyone else this season, including two more than Gordon.
But trying to match a career year for someone with Gordon's credentials isn't easy, and as good as Johnson's been, his average finish (11.5) isn't in the same zip code as Gordon's.
Johnson has been brilliant, just not equally as brilliant as Gordon, which leaves us to re-define what a truly great season is.
Under the old points system, Gordon would be on the verge of clinching his sixth Cup championship. He would have won in 2004, the inaugural Chase season, and would be 439 points clear of the field heading into Sunday's Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, meaning to clinch No. 6 he'd only need one finish of 30th or better the rest of the way.
Still, as great as Gordon's been in '07, there's a very real possibility that Championship No. 5 won't come this season, if ever. In short, the Chase for the Nextel Cup is challenging Gordon's place in history.
“The one issue I have with the Chase is that we still try to compare seven-time champions to what’s going on now, and there’s just no comparison,” said Gordon, who has yet to win a championship under the Chase format. “There’s absolutely no way you can compare past champions before the Chase to current champions. If that was the case, we’d have a couple more numbers up there ourselves.”
Gordon is fighting for his legacy. He may not have much ego, but he certainly wants his due, and he doesn't want to have to explain himself if he doesn't get to seven.
“He wants this fifth one bad,” said Johnson. “I've seen him driving more aggressively, more intense. He wants this more than I've ever seen.”
At this point in the Chase, Gordon is so focused on the job at hand he doesn't even look a day ahead, let alone a week. When asked how he thinks next Sunday's race at Phoenix will play out, Gordon replied, "Is it a day race or a night race?"
He can't afford to look ahead, because he knows from first-hand experience it's going to take wins – not seconds or thirds – to win this championship.
With three races to go in the 1996 season, Gordon led teammate Terry Labonte by a single point. In those final three races, Gordon finished12th, fifth and third – and lost the championship by 37 points.
"Anytime you're in a points battle, it's intense," said Gordon, who will start second for Sunday’s race. "It’s almost better that it’s close. When it’s a wider gap sometimes you take an extra breath and think you’ve got room to relax and you really don’t. That’s when it reaches out to bite you.
"I like what we have," he continued, talking about the four-year-old playoff-style format. "It's exciting. It's extremely intense and I think that it's the way our sport should be and grow to the future. But there's no way you can compare it to past champions and legends in our sport."
The conclusion is this – breaking down the greatest drivers, not of all time, but by era. In the early years, before 1972 when NASCAR went to a more formalized schedule, there's Richard Petty, winner of seven championships and 200 races; there's Dale Earnhardt, seven-time champion, in NASCAR's modern-era; and now Gordon is making his case to be the greatest of this, the post-modern era.