Jeff Gordon showed two things during the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season. First, he demonstrated that he can still contend for race wins and championships despite having passed the age of 40. And second, he clearly still has that fire that made him the most fierce competitor in the sport for more than a decade during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Last season, the four-time Sprint Cup champion visited victory lane on two occasions and tallied 18 top-10 finishes. Gordon has won a combined total of five races over the past two seasons after having scored only one win from 2008 to 2010. He now has amassed a total of 87 victories over the course of his career, which places him third on the all-time list, behind Richard Petty and David Pearson.
Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports team also qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2012 but they were only able to manage a 10th place result in the playoff. That rather poor finish in the standings was due in part to a 25 point penalty accessed against the driver and team after a late race incident with Clint Bowyer in Phoenix.
It was that situation in Phoenix where Gordon showed most clearly that he still has a competitive spark. After contact between he and Bowyer sent the No. 24 Chevrolet into the outside wall, Gordon limped his battered car around the track until Bowyer came around to lap him. Then, as Bowyer went to pass by, Gordon veered into the Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota sending both cars for a spin.
A melee between crew members ensued shortly afterward followed by a televised dash by Bowyer toward the Gordon hauler.
This particular incident between the two had been brewing after previous run-ins. ''Things just got escalated over the year, and I'd just had it,'' Gordon declared after the incident. ''Clint has run into me numerous times, wrecked me, and he got into me on the back straightaway and pretty much ruined our day. I've had it, fed up with it and I got him back.''
Obviously, this is a driver who has not made the decision to rest on his laurels.
For the most part, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson have meshed well since their pairing prior to the 2011 season. In 2013, the two will likely continue that productive relationship with more race wins and yet another year of competing for a championship.
Team owner Rick Hendrick believes the partnership of this driver and crew chief is a perfect match.
"Jeff has tremendous respect for Alan," Hendrick said. "Alan is an engineer. He's very technical. There's not a lot of conversation with him. He's very to the point and matter of fact. At this point in Jeff's career, I think that works for him."
It would seem a likely bet that Gordon will add to his remarkable win total in 2013. A solid crew chief and a renewed fire in his belly will make that so. But for whatever reason, the Chase format does not seem to agree with this future Hall of Fame driver. All of his titles were claimed under the old, season-long format.
Jeff Gordon will make the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff in 2013. But he is not my pick to win the big trophy.
Throughout the month of January, I will be running a series on the 12 drivers I am predicting to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup during the 2013 NASCAR season. The first eleven articles will be placed in no particular order but the final piece written in the series will be on the driver I am selecting as the favorite to win this year's championship. Half of these pieces will be placed on my own RacingWithRich.com site and half will be placed on BleacherReport.com. Please consider following along on both websites and adding your own thoughts in the "comments" sections below each piece.