Jeff Gordon Gets Missing Piece to Stellar 2014 Season with Win at Kansas

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistMay 11, 2014

Andrew Weber/USA Today

Jeff Gordon was a puzzle in the making during the first 10 races of the 2014 Sprint Cup season.

He was arguably one of the most successful and consistent drivers out there, having led the Cup standings for the previous four weeks.

But even with all the millions he has in the bank, the four-time Sprint Cup champ couldn't buy a win even if he wanted to.

Gordon finally found the missing piece of that puzzle and solved it at the same time with Saturday night's win in the 5-Hour Energy 400 at Kansas Speedway.

The way the race wound up, Gordon very easily could have woken up Sunday morning still seeking that first win of 2014.

But through a combination of beating Kevin Harvick off pit road with eight laps to go and being able to hold off a hard-charging Harvick on the final lap, Gordon won his first race of 2014 while also depriving Harvick from getting too greedy for what would have been his third win of the season as well.

Granted, the win itself was important, but it was more than just the 89th win of Gordon's two-plus decade career in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition.

First, it got him at least halfway—if not closer—to qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. With this year's revised and expanded Chase, while at least two wins would be the preferred way to go, drivers will need at least one win in this season's first 26 races to make the 10-race championship-deciding Chase.

Gordon now has that distinction.

"It just feels so good to get that first win of the season, especially this year with the points structure and how close we've been so many weekends," Gordon said, per a post-race press-conference transcript provided by NASCAR. "I think that, while that's a huge relief off our shoulder, it's probably going to just make us that much hungrier to go get that next one."

Indeed, winning at Kansas could potentially light a fire under Gordon, who is not only seeking his first Cup championship since 2001, he would also finally earn that equally elusive Chase trophy.

At the same time, Gordon not only wants to be the first winner of the revised Chase format, doing so could serve as the perfect opportunity for Gordon to go out on top and retire as a champion.

Then again, with the way he's been driving this season and being in control of the Sprint Cup points standings now for the last five weeks, Gordon could potentially go on to win this year's title and still come back to compete for several more seasons.

In a way, Gordon has been reinvigorated this season. With Saturday's win, he's now only 16 victories from tying David Pearson's for second place on the sport's all-time wins list. (Pearson has 105 Cup wins, while Richard Petty's mark of 200 career wins is untouchable.)

But equally important, if Gordon wins his fifth Cup championship this season, he could be playing a whole new ballgame going forward. Instead of retirement, he may just be catching his second wind.

While Jimmie Johnson has six championships, a fifth title for Gordon would leave him only two championships behind tying the all-time record of seven titles shared by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.

That’s some pretty strong motivation to stick around for a few more years, indeed.'videoId=3555054858001

Gordon turns 43 in August. If he wins this year's championship, there's no reason why he can't continue racing for another three to five more years—if he wants to, that is. And looking at the way he's competed and appears invigorated this season, the thought of potentially surpassing Pearson and Petty/Earnhardt may be very tempting to Gordon.

Granted, Gordon has not won a Cup championship in 13 years. The last being in 2001, the same year NASCAR lost Earnhardt in the season-opening Daytona 500.

Had Earnhardt not perished so tragically in a last-lap crash, he likely would have given Gordon a serious run for his money, given that The Intimidator had reared back for some of his old magic and finished second to Bobby Labonte for the 2000 Cup crown the season before.

There really hasn't been a year since 2001 that Gordon hasn't been considered among the favorites to win a fifth championship. But for one reason or other—and Johnson's five straight and six overall championships have been perhaps one of the biggest factors—Gordon hasn't been able to get it done.

But with the uncanny consistency he's shown thus far, coupled with getting that crucial first win on Saturday, Gordon is certainly looking like he can get it done in 2014.

One other piece of the puzzle that Gordon was able to complete Saturday was the motivational aspect. Now that the No. 24 team has the first win under its belt, things have suddenly gone from "When will we finally get that first win?" to "OK, when does the second and third or more wins come?"

"This, to a relief, but it's more motivating than that, and I think it's only going to inspire us," Gordon said. "Listen, we won the race and we're excited about that, but...we've got to continue to work and gain and push.

"All I know is that by getting this win, it just allows us to focus that much more and fine tune on what we need to do to go win more and continue to just push as hard as we can to be the best out there."

All quotes in this story were from a post-race press conference transcript provided by NASCAR. 

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