For most of the last few years, Jeff Gordon has seemed less a championship-caliber driver than a rolling monument, the NASCAR equivalent of a band still touring on the strength of decades-old hits. Sure, he'd win a race or two, but he didn't really scare anybody all that much.
Safe to say that's changed. Once again Gordon has established himself as one of the dominant drivers in the sport, winning three races this season and smoothing out almost all the inconsistencies that dogged him through the first half of the year. He and new crew chief Alan Gustafson are clicking so well that they were just a couple breaks from winning the last three races of the regular season.
If there's a weakness in Gordon's game, it's restarts; a race that comes down to a last-second shootout could prove problematic. But he's proven this year that he can run well at short tracks, superspeedways and cookie-cutters, and that's why (spoiler!) he's our pick to take his fifth championship and put the exclamation point on one of the finest careers in NASCAR history.
Gordon's best Chase track: Martinsville, where he's got an average finish of 7.0 over 37 races. That's not bad, friends. His next two best tracks are Kansas and Chicago, meaning he'll be comfortable throughout the Chase.
Gordon's worst Chase track: Texas, which has bedeviled Gordon so badly that it's his worst track on the circuit. It looms as his one weak spot; though he has a win there, he hasn't finished higher than 23rd there since 2009.
Key question: Can everything outside of green-flag runs come together? Gordon runs fine in the open field; it's when he comes in to pit or has to restart that the troubles begin. If his pit crew can step up, and if Gordon doesn't find himself aside Kevin Harvick or Kyle Busch on restarts, all will work out just fine.
JB's prediction: This is the year. It's all clicking at exactly the right time for Gordon. If he's not winning races, he's notching podium finishes. That's the kind of run that gets you championships. It's time for No. 5.