Motivated Jeff Gordon proving his Chase worth

Jared Wickerham

A fifth championship may be a long shot, but if Martinsville proved anything, it's that no one should dismiss Jeff Gordon just yet.

There was a time not too long ago when Jeff Gordon ruled Martinsville Speedway like no one else. A time when the No. 24 Chevrolet with the rainbow paint scheme might as well have been a bull's-eye, because it was the target everyone was chasing around the celebrated half-mile track.

"You never know when that next one is going to come. I understand that better today than I ever have, just because the wins haven't come as often."-Jeff Gordon

But that era of dominance has come and gone. Without a Martinsville victory since 2005, Gordon had been clearly usurped by Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, who prior to Sunday had combined to win 11 of the previous 14 races. No longer was it Gordon and everyone else.

That's not to say that he had lost his talent for getting around Martinsville, as Gordon posted an exemplary average finish of 5.7 in the 14 races before his victory Sunday.

But what's old is apparently new again.

With the laps clicking down, Gordon looked like his retro self chasing down Matt Kenseth. Even more so when he executed a textbook move that saw him power his way into the lead off of Turn 2. And being back in the Martinsville winner's circle after a lengthy absence clearly meant something to Gordon, who at age 42 relishes the triumphs, knowing these chances are no longer in abundance.

"You never know when that next one is going to come," Gordon said. "I understand that better today than I ever have, just because the wins haven't come as often. Sometimes guys make it look easy, and it's not. I can promise you that."

The driver who used to be booed excessively for winning too much has evolved into a favorite, whose fan base is among the largest in the sport. But part of Gordon's charm is that he no longer is the young buck stealing the trophies that otherwise would have gone to a grizzled veteran. He's now the veteran who, at his expense, has seen a host of hotshoes eclipse him and assert themselves.

Before Sunday, Gordon was winless on the year and staring at the very real possibility of being shutout in the win column for the third time in six seasons. A continuation of a problem that has hampered the No. 24 team, becoming more defined by the races it didn't win rather than those it did.

It took a "heart-to-heart" conversation with crew chief Alan Gustafson in July to improve Gordon's outlook. Gustafson was direct with the four-time Cup champion telling him his negative attitude was making matters worse and hindering the 24 team from achieving its goals. Gordon called the conversation a "bonding moment" and reenergized a team which had lost its way.

Although it took a convoluted set of circumstances along with the intervention of NASCAR CEO Brian France for him to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Gordon's made the most of his renewed playoff fortunes.

He's fulfilled his vow to show the unprecedented maneuvering enacted by NASCAR's chairman was deserved. Through seven races, Gordon has recorded five finishes of seventh or better and had cars capable of winning at Chicagoland and New Hampshire before fate intervened.

More telling, on the heels of his win at Martinsville, Gordon has vaulted to third in the championship order. Although he's 27 points behind and will need something dire to befall co-leaders Kenseth and Johnson, the chance is there for Gordon to finally win his fifth title.

"For us, we're really thinking of we've just got to go fight hard and see if we can't do something extraordinary, and it's going to take an extraordinary three weeks for that to happen," he said. "But mathematically, we're certainly in it."

And however faint that hope may be, the possibility exists that in three weeks the last man in the Chase could very well be the last man standing when the championship is decided.

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