JOLIET, Ill. – Eight feet, that's the literal distance between Jeff Gordon's No. 24 and Kyle Busch's No. 18 inside the garage at Chicagoland Speedway. Figuratively, though, they are a world apart.
By way of his last-ditch, near-miracle rally at Richmond last Saturday night, Gordon will spend the next 10 weeks racing for a championship, while Busch has little more than pride on the line. That's the difference between making the Chase and missing it, in this case a margin of three points on a scoreboard in which the winner of the final wild card spot totaled 777.
His title hopes on life support seven days ago, Gordon enters this Chase as maybe its most dangerous contender. It's not just that he's running well (3rd, 2nd 2nd in his last three starts); it's that, in his words, he has "nothing to lose."
"I can promise you that's what got us in this thing and that's what's going to keep us in it and get us the championship," Gordon said Friday. "If anything, I think what these last three weeks and really this season has proven to us is that you have to aggressively pursue wins and obviously accumulate the most points. That's what wins this championship."
It's not so much a "duh" moment as it is a revelation for someone who's been in the sport so long "points racing" isn't just terminology, but rather a way of life. What Gordon found out in falling so far behind in the early goings of 2012 (halfway through the regular season he was 21st in the standings) is that living on the edge has its rewards, in this case scoring more points over the last 10 weeks than every driver but one (Brad Keselowski).
This is how Gordon formed a mindset heading into the Chase that going for broke will put him in a position to finally win that fifth championship.
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Yes, the seemingly never-ending quest for a fifth championship. The "drive for five" is going on its 11th year now, and while Gordon's own drive remains fierce even into his 20th season in the sport, he's rounded the corner to 40 (he turned 41 in August). He's not talking retirement like he did a few years ago when a bad back threatened to push him out of the sport. But it's no secret his days behind the wheel and opportunities to win a championship are numbered.
So, knowing that whatever he's done hasn't worked since 2001, he's game to try something new, which, in some ways, is something old.
"We just did not pursue the wins as aggressively as we are going to this time," he explained. "We're going to try to do it differently this time."
What that means is Gordon charging to the front when his car will allow it and crew chief Alan Gustafson taking big swings on pit road when it won't.
This is exactly what they did last Saturday night at Richmond when, midway through the race, Gordon was going backwards, his Chase hopes fading with each spot lost. He needed to beat Kyle Busch by 12 spots, and by the halfway point Gordon was riding around 20th, Busch 10th.
With nothing to lose Gustafson called for a change to the car, then an unconventional pit stop and the fortunes started reversing. Gordon moved forward while Busch stood pat.
"That's sometimes what happens – you get in that box like those five or six guys," Gordon explained. "They got comfortable and said, 'OK, we'll be okay even though we didn't pit here,' and for us, we were kind of in that position of we've got nothing to lose. … We've got to keep up that mind as we run these races."
Since June 17 – or 12 races ago – Gordon posted nine finishes of sixth or better. That's a dangerous stat for the field, especially in a Chase in which there is no clear favorite.
This has been a season defined by consistent inconsistency. Greg Biffle has been solid, but never dominant; Jimmie Johnson has been dominant, but never consistently so; Denny Hamlin's back-to-back wins a few weeks ago are his only top 10s in the last month.
If momentum matters, then the edge coming into the Chase goes to Keselowski (nine top 10s in the last 10 races) and Gordon.
To summon up the days of old when he was a brash young kid on the cusp of changing the face of the sport forever, Gordon has stopped shaving his upper lip. He's bringing back the 'stache that's been stashed away for nearly 20 years.
It's a symbolic gesture, but one that's meant to remind him who he was is who he still can be, which fits in perfectly with that nothing-to-lose mentality.
"We feel like we've got a good game plan and a great race car," he said, "and the 'stache is back, so I think we're in great shape."
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