A lot of drivers would take Jeff Gordon's scorecard, which the last five weeks reads 3, 3, 4, 5 and 4. But as we know, Jeff Gordon isn't a lot of drivers, and the lack of any aces – not even one – is cause for conversation.
For 48 straight races now, Gordon's only reason to go to victory lane has been to congratulate the winner. This weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, he went to shake the hand of David Reutimann.
Gordon led late in the race, but as has been the case more often than not the last two-plus seasons, he was good but just not good enough. Since 2008, Gordon has finished in the top five 39 times – same as teammate and four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson. But in that same time, Johnson has won 19 races to Gordon's one.
One win in the last 96 starts for Jeff Freaking Gordon.
No, at 38 and ¾ he's not over the hill, not even close, even after 600 career starts, the milestone he reached Saturday night. He is second in the standings, after all.
But still, it's different. It's weird.
"You know, there was a few years when we were winning every third or fourth race," Gordon said after finishing third at Chicagoland, marking his series-leading 10th top five of the season. "Now we win three every 100. I'd like to get back to some winning ways."
The aura of winning that Gordon radiated in the '90s is gone, but the champion isn't. He's still there. We know this because week in, week out, Gordon is smack dab in the middle of the top five. So it's not as if he's gone the way of Willie Mays as a New York Met. Gordon's more like an aging pitcher who takes to striking people out with a slider instead of a fastball. It's good enough for 15 wins a season, just not a Cy Young.
But does Gordon, who's now mired in the longest winless streak of his career surpassing the previous mark of 47, have to win races in order to win a championship? And if Gordon fans could only have one but not the other, which would you pick – wins or a fifth title?
First, can he win a championship without winning a race?
Why not? The last five races, Gordon's average finish is 3.8, which, if stretched out to a 10-race pace, would be plenty good enough to win the Chase. Yes, that's a big if, but so far this season two drivers (Gordon and Kevin Harvick, who had engine issues and wound up 34th) have shown they're capable of doing it.
But if Gordon did win a title without winning a race, would fans accept him as the champion, especially considering that two drivers have five wins and counting? And would Gordon fans celebrate a winless title?
There's no determination to be made right now on either question, other than to say both answers will be debated.
What's not debatable is that just when you think the Cup Series has become so predictable, it's not. It's been more than two years since there's been a surprise winner that didn't involve some sort of luck (rain), strategy (fuel) or a restrictor plate. Martin Truex's win at Dover in 2007 when he led 216 of 400 laps was no fluke.
Neither was Reutimann's.
Gordon was putting up a good fight, and with most of the usual suspects running into trouble – Jimmie Johnson got spun, Harvick had the aforementioned engine issues and Denny Hamlin struggled all weekend – and with only little ol' David "I love love" Reutimann in his mirror, a win looked promising.
Once again, though, Gordon couldn't finish. Reutimann inched his way forward, battled side by side with the four-time champ for a number of laps before eventually pulling ahead with 32 laps to go. From there, he never looked back.
More than a year after celebrating his first career win standing on a rainy pit road, Reutimann finally got to do the burnout he didn't get to do before.
"I've been around for not as many years as most," said Ty Norris, general manger of Reutimann's team, Michael Waltrip Racing, "but I've probably not seen anyone have to walk around for a year and a half and apologize about winning a race. Winning that Coca Cola 600 because of rain, everyone sort of like had the asterisk next to that win. Tonight was a huge statement."
It is. Reutimann's no joke, no matter how goofy he is in those "I love love" commercials. He earned the win as much as any driver has this season, outmaneuvering Gordon in the process, which is why "Four Time" went to victory lane.
"I just know that that win that he had in Charlotte, you know, while he took it, not going to throw away the trophy, earning it the way he earned it tonight is the way he wants to do it," Gordon said. "He just drove a great race and had a good race car. I think he deserves to be congratulated."
Predictably, Gordon was classy in defeat, something he has had to become accustomed to. But he's not defeated. Not yet. He still is very much in the game; only his game is different now.
- Jeff Gordon