When the Daytona 500 starts, Jeff Gordon will be at the front.
But who will notice?
Everyone will be watching the No. 10 of pole sitter Danica Patrick at the green flag. Never mind the 24 on the outside of her on the front row.
But Gordon might understand. He is NASCAR’s forgotten champion. It has been four years since the four-time Sprint Cup title winner has threatened to make it five-time. Since he won his last championship in 2001, he has been passed in star power by former protégé Jimmie Johnson, three-time champion Tony Stewart and now, new champion Brad Keselowski.
At 41, Gordon knows what he has done and what he has left to do.
“I’ve gotten beat up, and beat myself up a little bit, not being as competitive as I was 10 years ago,” he said on Media Day last week. “No matter how long you’ve been in this sport, when you’re competitive like that, it’s hard to manage those expectations.”
The start on the front row Sunday might only heighten expectations. It’s clear he has a strong car. On top of that, he won his last race, the season finale at Miami last year. So he’s actually on a little bit of a hot streak.
“Winning the final race of the year last year was big for us,” he said. “The pressure’s on me to step up my game and maintain that level of consistency and drive and talent that I’ve had that’s gotten me to this level and has gotten us wins and championships.”
Which he is perfectly capable of, no matter how much of a bad-luck year he had in 2012, said his crew chief, Alan Gustafson.
“Here, it’s probably more about the car, but with him, he has the ability to do some pretty amazing things,” Gustafson said. “He’s as good as anybody on the race track. Last year was no fault of his — it was just some tough circumstances.”
But it’s a sign of the times that Gordon has to think about consistency and confidence.
For years, he was the coolest driver in the sport. He was the driver being chased. Not the driver needing every ounce of luck and skill on his side just to get into the Chase last year.
“I think a lot of times the hardest thing is to get the first one,” he said, remembering his first championship in 1995. “Because once you get that first one, it gives you confidence in yourself and your team. You know, ‘I’m capable of doing this.’ Especially in the new format, to do battle over 10 weeks, you’ve got to get in and you’ve got to be on top of your game for 10 weeks.”
Gordon has missed the Chase, NASCAR’s new championship format, only once since it was began in 2004. But he has not mastered it. He has only four Chase wins. Meanwhile, Johnson has racked up 22 Chase wins and five Chase titles.
But Gordon has not lost his place in other drivers’ minds.
Asked who he believes is the most competitive driver in the series, Casey Mears said Gordon.
“I love racing, and I am competitive with it with all my heart, but there are some things that I just am not competitive about and don’t care about. One guy that is competitive about every single thing he does is Jeff Gordon,” Mears said. “Whether it be poker, bowling, racing, he wants to win it. He is a very competitive guy. I have played poker with him, bowled with him and done other things, and he gets very competitive.”
Teammate Kasey Kahne said Gordon is unlikely to waste such a fast car as he’ll have Sunday.
“When I was out there with him, I could tell his car was handling and he had the speed, probably very similar to what my car had,” Kahne said. “I’m really excited for Sunday. I’d imagine Jeff is, also. He’s won a lot at Daytona over the years, so this is a place that he knows he can win, and he has a great shot at winning when he’s here.”
Gordon has won the Daytona 500 three times. He doesn’t have to win another 500 on Sunday. He doesn’t have to win another championship.
It’s just that it would be nice.
“When I look in the mirror, I see more wrinkles and gray hair — I know it has been awhile,” he said. “It’s been a heck of a ride, a lot of fun, great and challenging moments. I wouldn’t have wanted or asked for anything different than the way it’s been over the last 20 years.”
Just don’t forget about him.