The hairs on Jeff Gordon’s head may be a little grayer, his four NASCAR championships may seem a little further in the past.
One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is Gordon’s desire, and he served up yet another reminder Saturday night that even in NASCAR’s newest playoff format, he and his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team are still a contender.
Gordon led only nine laps in the 5-Hour Energy 400 at Kansas Speedway, but the last eight were the most important as he held off a furious charge from Kevin Harvick to earn his first Sprint Cup Series victory of the season.
Gordon already was the series points leader entering the race, but he had yet to win – something which has become almost a necessity this season to qualify for the Chase.
“What an incredible job by this race team. I’m just so proud of them,” Gordon said. “They have been giving me the best race cars all year long.
“I have been having so much fun. I’m going to be 43 this year, and I feel like I’m 25 again. That is the way they make me feel.”
If that turns out to be also how he races – much like when he was 25 – Gordon may want to reconsider his statements earlier this season when he suggested the best way to retire would be after winning another series championship.
“I just feel so competitive out there, and that makes me feel young again,” Gordon said. “When the cars are that good, my back just doesn’t seem to hurt as much.
“The whole retirement thing I think is thrown out there too much, and I’m probably somewhat to blame, but there’s no secret, I’m going to be 43 this year. But, man, if 43 is like this, I can’t wait for 50.”
Perhaps the best indicator of the level on which Gordon and his team are competing is that they went toe-to-toe with Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing team – which easily has been among the most consistently strong this season – and came out on top.
Harvick led 119 of the 267 laps, and even though he twice got caught back in the field because of untimely cautions during green-flag pit stops, when the win was on the line, he was leading on Lap 237 before the final round of green-flag stops.
It took nearly 18 laps for all the cars to cycle through their stops, and when they had, Gordon was out front, ahead of Harvick with eight laps left in the race.
Twice in those closing laps Harvick closed to within striking distance but could not complete a winning pass.
“He was strong, and he was coming,” Gordon said of Harvick. “He was so strong on the top side of (Turns) 3 and 4, I’m not sure I could have held him off much longer.”
The win is the 89th of Gordon’s career, and he continues to rank third all time in series history in wins.
Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne finished third, Joey Logano was fourth and HMS teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. was fifth.
Harvick was disappointed in himself after the race for a slower-than-expected last pit stop.
“We ran out of gas coming to pit road there, and I was looking at the fuel pressure gauge instead of the tach and lost a bunch of time down pit road and off of pit road,” he said. “We wound up getting stuck behind (Gordon).”
For Gordon, the timing of his first win could not be better. Next up is two weeks of competition at Charlotte Motor Speedway – first with Saturday night’s Sprint All-Star Race and then the May 25 Coca-Cola 600 – the site of his first series victory 20 years ago.
“You look back through my career and have the wins that I’ve had, and to be able to be this far into my career and be able to get back to Victory Lane is very special,” Gordon said.
“Then to follow that by going to Charlotte, a place that I love – I love racing at Charlotte – and to be at home and also race, it’s just one of those races where you go all out, and it’s more about pride and honor and just kind of showing your competitors what you can do.”
They all got a very good flashback Saturday night.