Time flies, doesn’t it? Seems like just yesterday, Jeff Gordon was the upstart 24-year-old, turning heads while holding the torch for NASCAR’s next generation. Longtime fans remember that battle, a changing of the guard where Dale Earnhardt, Sr. fought hard but ultimately lost a War with Father Time, inevitably handing the mantle of multiple championships to the man with the pink car labeled “Rainbow Warrior.” Gordon, by age 30, already owned four titles and had reached the top of his game, penning the next chapter in NASCAR history virtually by himself.
Thirteen years later, at age 43 Gordon has slipped back a bit, now facing a slew of competitors for that trophy every year, including the man who may one day win the next battle of Father Time: 24-year-old Joey Logano. Logano, leading 86 laps Sunday at Michigan had the best car and flexed Penske Racing’s muscle, taking advantage of Gordon’s kryptonite: late-race restarts. Using every trick in the book, to the point NASCAR warned him, it took a Herculean effort by Gordon to pass Logano on the final restart and leave the youngster settling for third place. In the Dog Days of Summer, with both men entrenched in the Chase it was a consolation prize that appeared to leave Logano more fired up than the victor.
“We can win a championship,” he said after the race. “I really feel we can do that. That’s the message I want to put out there.”
Sliced Bread is right; Penske Racing can win a championship someday, and has in the recent past with teammate Brad Keselowski. No doubt they’re the best positioned, along with Kevin Harvick of all the “outside” organizations to challenge Hendrick Motorsports.
It just looks less and less likely that the challenge will happen this year.
Right now, Hendrick Motorsports appears on top of its game with old flame Gordon, now gray behind the ears, earning his third victory of the season Sunday, the most for the No. 24 team in three years. Launched back into the points lead, by three over Dale Earnhardt, Jr., it’s the fifteenth time Gordon’s held it this season, in 23 races which is easily a Sprint Cup best. The consistency is back, the strongest it’s been since a late 1990s run of dominance that was the “gold standard” until a guy named Jimmie Johnson came along.
Oh, about that Johnson guy. His shifter broke Sunday, part of an odd series of circumstances that left the No. 48 a lap down at one point, the sixth in seemingly an endless series of races that constituted his annual summer slump. But crew chief Chad Knaus, after trying a Bob Vila-like series of home improvement fixes inside the car figured out a way to make shifting easy for Johnson, sending the No. 48 back on its way, earning its lap back and soaring straight into the top 10 by race’s end. Johnson, jawing with Ryan Newman after the race, was clearly fired up and seemed jolted by the fresh boost of momentum. With three wins, matching Gordon, the six-time champ will be more formidable than ever entering the Chase.
We’ve gotten this far, on the Hendrick bandwagon and haven’t even mentioned Dale Earnhardt, Jr. yet. NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, in the midst of his Most Emotional season continues to maximize a farewell tour with outgoing crew chief Steve Letarte. A solid top-5 car Sunday, he remains second in points with an 80-point gap on third-place Keselowski. Yes, you read that right… 80 points, nearly two full race’s worth over the field. If there was no Chase, no “free pass” for their rivals to catch up, the storyline would be Earnhardt versus Gordon for the title.
Chances are, November won’t be much different, and with just a little bit of Johnson sprinkled in. You don’t get that far out in front, in any type of regular season format, and then suddenly fall flat when the real money is on the line those final ten races.
Second guessing them? Well even Logano, in the midst of his confidence boost, admitted Hendrick horsepower “is the best in the sport right now.” Keselowski, back in June, thought his team was up to a year behind HMS in terms of chassis and engine development. And that’s their closest challengers! Take a look at what some of the Toyota folk were saying Sunday after none of them finished inside the top 5.
“We clearly got a lot of work to do,” said Clint Bowyer, who ran sixth. “We’re behind.” “We’ve obviously been struggling for speed,” added Denny Hamlin, seventh and the only Joe Gibbs Racing driver who didn’t wreck. “I’m trying to fight – do everything I can to keep up with the Hendrick engines.”
Perhaps the only Hendrick kryptonite are the teams they give said engines to, like Harvick and the No. 4 car whose team had been the fastest for much of the 2014 season’s first half. But Stewart-Haas Racing, as everyone is well aware of has bigger fish to fry, racing without its most focused leader for weeks, potentially months depending on the outcome of a criminal investigation. In the short-term, the right people in the right places can hold SHR together but it’s a framework that inevitably suffers once the boss is out of the office for an extended period of time.
That leaves Gordon, Earnhardt, Jr. and Johnson, seemingly destined for the Final Four right now with one spot left for these other “underdog” candidates. It’s a clear separation of strength not lost on owner Rick Hendrick, who understands just how well things are clicking outside of Kasey Kahne and his No. 5 car.
“The thing I’m so proud of with the whole group,” he said. “I feel we’ve run 1-2-3 in the points. I care about them all. We give each of them the best equipment.
“I don’t have any favorites. I would love to see Dale get his first championship. I would love to see Jimmie get number seven. I’d love to see Jeff get number five. There’s reasons I’d like each of them to win it.”
There’s also plenty of reasons why settling it amongst the three of them, drivers part of the exact same team won’t exactly get blood pumping within NASCAR’s fan base desperate for some diversity. But they’re not going to have a choice, unless someone can stop the Hendrick hierarchy from running rampant over the competition once more.
“We got a smart group of guys,” Gordon said Sunday. “I feel like we started on a good path at the start of the season and we’ve continued to do that up to this point. I think it will even continue through the next 12 or 13 weeks.”