Commentary

Gordon proves he's still a winner

Updated: April 5, 2009, 8:25 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

FORT WORTH, Texas -- One year, five months and 23 days, to be exact.

No driver this good has ever gone this long without a victory unless his winning days were behind him.

Jeff Gordon still is a winner. Few victories in his historic career meant as much as the Samsung 500 on Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

A 47-race streak without a win, a stretch that had some people wondering if Gordon's winning days and championship ways were behind him, ended at the most unlikely of places.

Gordon was 0-for-16 on the 1.5-mile TMS oval, one of only two active Cup tracks (along with Homestead Miami Speedway) where Gordon hadn't gone to Victory Lane.

The Lone Star State haunted him. TMS is the only track where Gordon had finished 43rd in his career, and he did it here twice. The second time was this event one year ago.

So pick your cliché -- killing two birds with one stone, getting two monkeys off his back, whatever -- Gordon exorcised two demons on one blue-sky afternoon in North Texas.

[+] EnlargeJeff Gordon
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesJeff Gordon last performed a celebratory burnout after a points win at Lowe's Motor Speedway in October 2007.

"How ironic is this?" Gordon said in Victory Lane. "We go on this [losing] streak and end it at Texas, the place that had eluded us for so long.

"This was an incredible team effort. The whole year has been that way, but I've never had a car like this at Texas."

Gordon needed the best No. 24 Chevy he could handle because the man who has outraced him for the past three years was gaining ground and trying to ruin Gordon's day.

Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson finished second to his mentor, adding even more irony to the race. Gordon had fallen to second in the Hendrick hierarchy while watching Johnson win the past three Cup championships. "Five more laps and we would have had a shot at him," Johnson said. "We both were trying as hard as we could."

Had he gotten up to Gordon's bumper, no mercy was coming. Johnson wanted that victory regardless of who he had to pass to get it.

"As a friend, I would have felt bad," Johnson said. "As a competitor, I would have been excited. The 24 is leading the points. We could have built some momentum on him.

"But I'm happy for Jeff. That team has really hit its stride. He's got that victory now and he's going to be awfully tough."

Gordon ran well all day, but he still might be waiting to end his losing streak if not for a nightmare pit stop at the end for Carl Edwards.

Edwards passed Gordon for the lead with 38 laps to go, but his final pit stop cost him 10 spots when the front tire changer had problems with both tires.

"I don't want anybody to tell me when I've done something wrong," Edwards said. "So I don't need to tell them. We're in this together."

The pit road miscue by the No. 99 Ford crew was the only break Gordon needed. He got out first and never looked back.

I knew what was written and said. And that was OK. We didn't win and sometimes it was my fault. It makes you question how bad you really want it.

-- Jeff Gordon

Gordon now has 82 career victories, one short of tying Cale Yarborough for fifth on the all-time wins list. He is three victories shy of passing Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison to rank third all time.

His status as one of the greatest NASCAR drivers in history is secure, whether he ever won again or not. But the losing streak made some fans and reporters wonder if Gordon was done as a title contender.

Gordon had problems adjusting to the looser new car. His fans were howling last year for a change at crew chief, wanting Rick Hendrick to fire Steve Letarte.

At 37, maybe Gordon had lost his edge. He was happily married to model Ingrid Vandebosch. He became a father for the first time to daughter Ella Sofia. And Gordon struggled with back problems while Johnson became the star of the sport.

Maybe winning races just didn't matter as much anymore. That was the talk.

Gordon never accepted it. He entered this season with a renewed zeal. He worked out harder on offseason conditioning than anytime in his career.

There is a new toughness to his demeanor, a strong motivation to prove he still is the Jeff Gordon who won four Cup titles.

"I knew what was written and said," Gordon said. "And that was OK. We didn't win and sometimes it was my fault. It makes you question how bad you really want it.

"Honestly, I think it inspired us. It made us angry. I didn't want to be someone riding around. I didn't want to be someone who never won again."

Gordon is going to win more races this season. He leads the standings by 162 points. He has six top-10s in seven starts. "I thought he was past his prime," said a smirking Greg Biffle, who finished third Sunday. "I never had a doubt in my mind that Jeff could win races again. The guy is a phenomenal driver. He knows what he wants a car to feel like. About 10 of us do out here. It's just a matter of getting it right."

Gordon and the No. 24 team are getting it right. "This feels like the first time I've ever won," Gordon said. "I don't know how many years I have left, but you want to prove to yourself something and make sure there are no excuses. I'm giving these guys everything I've got."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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