Kenny Bruce, NASCAR Scene
GORDON SNAPS 47-RACE WINLESS STREAK BY FINALLY CONQUERING TEXAS MOTOR SPEEDWAY
The losses kept piling up. Week after week, month after month. For a guy more accustomed to collecting trophies than condolences, the past 17 months have had their share of trying times. A career that included four NASCAR Cup championships and 81 victories was suddenly no guarantee of future success.
And then there’s Texas Motor Speedway, site of this year’s Samsung 500. Thirteen different Cup drivers had won here. None of them, however, were named Gordon.
Jeff Gordon, shut out at TMS and winless the last 47 times he flipped the switch in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, erased both ominous streaks here by holding off Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson in what amounted to a final 28-lap dash to the checkered flag.
The series point leader led six times for a race-high 105 laps and cashed out with a track record $541,874.
For a guy used to winning, Gordon was carrying on like a first-timer in the winners’ circle.
“It feels like the first time I’ve ever won,” Gordon said. “It’s been a long streak … full of ups and downs and tough times, not only here at Texas but just over the past, I don’t know ... 46, 47 races.
“And I knew we were going to get one eventually. I feel like we had some missed opportunities last season, even [if] we didn’t have a great year. But there was still times we could have won. And so that just keeps you driving hard and pushing forward.”
Even at a track as persnickety as Texas.
“I’m telling you, at Texas, I’m just lost,” said Gordon, whose average finish here before the win was 16th. “This is just one of the toughest race tracks out there. The transitions getting into the corner, off the corner are unlike any other. Yet the corners are extremely fast.
“I believe, for me personally, as well as a lot of other guys who will probably back it up, this is the most challenging mile-and-a-half track that we go to.”
He started fast, getting around pole winner David Reutimann early, but within a handful of laps began to struggle. His car’s handling went haywire. And the concerns began.
“I mean, I was sideways,” he said. “You get frustrated. You’re like, ‘Is this me? Why is this happening over and over and over again?’ And we faded.”
He might have faded, but he didn’t fold.
During the second half of the 334-lap event, Gordon managed to get to the front four times, the final time coming on lap 307 when his pit crew got him off pit road first.
In the end, it was the unfailing precision of his crew that made the difference. There was no late-race fog, no hesitation on the busy side of pit wall as Gordon slid into his pit stall for the final time, tires smoking and motor revving.
“You need guys that want the ball,” crew chief Steve Letarte said of his team. “They want to be playmakers, they want to make the difference. … It’s actually a little bit harder to stay focused early in a race. If you can’t get focused on the last pit stop, then you’re in the wrong business.”
After that, it was all up to Gordon.
Carl Edwards, the leader before the final stop, had problems on pit road, came out 11th and couldn’t gain ground. No one gained ground on Gordon except teammate Jimmie Johnson, but it was too little and too late.
“Races are won a lot of different ways. Sometimes the fastest car wins. Sometimes the best pit crew gets the win,” Gordon said. “… You never know how the results would have changed had Carl not had his problems. All I know is our team had a great pit stop. …
“We got clean air right from the start and we were able to just set sail, and I laid down some incredible laps. These guys, they tightened the car up and we flew.”
Johnson, now second to Gordon in the point standings, described the final push to the finish as “fun.” If you can’t win, there are a lot worst places to finish than second.
“The cool thing about those last 28 laps,” Johnson said, “[is] there was nothing left out there. My foot, it feels like I was at the go-kart track. … My foot is still tingling from pushing the pedal so hard.”
So the streak of futility is over and Gordon has two weeks to enjoy his latest, and perhaps one of his most satisfying, victories. The series is idle until heading west to Phoenix April 18.
“I read all the stuff about [how I] can’t drive a loose race car. Can’t drive the car of tomorrow,’” Gordon said. “It’s got nothing to do with that. There’s a certain way I drive. I can’t change that. I’ve been in a lot of different types of race cars, and when the car fits what I need, we go fast.”
And when Gordon goes fast, winless streaks fall by the wayside. Even at Texas.