Alright, so we know those days of winning 10 or more races in one season are probably long gone for Jeff Gordon. Perhaps those seasons of leading the most laps and leading the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in poles aren't going to happen as frequently for the four-time Cup champion, who'll enter the 2014 season as a 42-year-old racing veteran. Interestingly, as pointed out by comedian Jay Mohr during this year's awards ceremony at Las Vegas, Gordon will now be the longest-tenured full-time Cup competitor on the tour, a new title for the driver once called "The Kid."
On most days, this 88-time race winner is a respectable top-10 contending driver who's capable of holding his own against today's top stars.
Oftentimes, the No. 24 Drive To End Hunger/Axalta Chevrolet SS can be found at the front of the field, challenging for a top-five spot at most venues like Charlotte, Dover, Infineon, or Chicagoland.
Lately, he's also been turning those perennial boo birds into the masses who root for him, much like the late Dale Earnhardt finally earned the crowd's liking in his latter years. Although he's not quite up to the popularity level of Dale Earnhardt Jr., he's finally earned the praises of the grandstand creatures, who recognize the longevity and accomplishments of the Vallejo, CA native.
Not to mention, he's finally grown comfortable in his skin as being Gordon, something that even 20 years ago, this successful racer wasn't able to be in his hey days. He's often smiling, joking with his peers, and finally having some fun. The family life's wonderful too, with his wife Ingrid and two children Ella Sofia and Leo Benjamin being the sunshine of his world. As someone once said, "Who's better than us?"
Towards the final stretch of the 2013 racing season, the critics saw how strong this group can get, churning up their best performances of the year when it truly counted.
Good driving along with solid crew chief leadership by Alan Gustafson resulted in their solid sixth place points showing, which was like a championship considering their horrendous start this year.
Early on in the year, this bunch struggled to keep up with the Joneses of NASCAR, as they would get caught up in wrecks, mechanical ailments, or mistimed pit stops that would just lead to poor race day results. Think back to their spring races at Bristol and Charlotte, where they were good enough to win. Instead of placing near that number one spot, their car would wind up being towed back to the garage as a pile of heap.
Some questioned if Gordon still had the drive or if Gustafson was able to execute the right calls atop the pit box. In a performance based sport, it's easy to wonder if Team 24 has the makings to be an elite Cup team for wins and challenging for the title.
As Gordon would point out, it was their 10th-place effort at Loudon in July that woke them up. Feeling like they could've placed better at a historically strong track, their performances in the final stretch were stellar.
A seventh at Indy, runner-up at Pocono, seventh at Bristol, sixth at Atlanta, eighth at Richmond, sixth at Chicagoland, fourth at Dover, third at Kansas, seventh at Charlotte, and a win at Martinsville helped propel the No. 24 team from almost forgotten status to, "Whoa, you guys can make a statement" level. Strong summertime performances helped Gordon and company return to their eighth consecutive Chase appearance, and ninth overall showing in the 10 year history of NASCAR's "playoffs."
This team remains relatively the same heading into 2014, which is actually a good thing. With a year under their belt with the Gen-6 car, although changes may happen, they have a good baseline with the upcoming season.
Communication and chemistry with this group is as good as can be and there's a driver who's anxious and ready to make a statement as NASCAR's eldest ambassador. Question is, can they keep up with the Joneses?
One thing's for certain - not many can keep up with Jeff Gordon on a good day, which is still very possible in today's NASCAR racing.