With five laps to go in the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday afternoon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. roared by Tony Stewart. Earnhardt ended up taking his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to Victory Lane, but he wasn’t the strongest driver in the team’s stable.
Jeff Gordon led 130 of the 500 laps during Sunday’s spectacle. Carrying the Hendrick banner in the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, he has to maintain consistency in order to contend for his fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title. However, being consistent and getting into the final round of the Chase might not be enough for Gordon. The goal is to end on top.
With four wins this year, the No. 24 team has been one of the most consistent all year long. He is tied for the series lead in top 10s with 21, and leads the sport with an average finish of 10.1, which is his best since 2007. A costly pit road speeding penalty might have taken away Gordon’s automatic ticket into the championship event at Homestead, but that might give him more an incentive heading into Texas and Phoenix.
“Well, I’ve never felt like you couldn’t think about being consistent in this format,” said Gordon following the race. “You still have to be consistent. Points can still get you through. Your goal is to either win the race or be the highest in points. I think that gets you through no matter what.”
In the Chase, Gordon has been relatively consistent. He has led 26 laps or more in four of the seven events, yet he has finished 14th or worse on three occasions, which nearly cost him advancing to the Eliminator Round. On Sunday, Gordon displayed the urge to win. That urge is going to increase at Texas and Phoenix. He ran well at both of those race tracks early in the year, but he is determined to complete the “Drive for Five.”
As he was approaching Earnhardt with a handful of laps remaining at Martinsville, it appeared as if he turned into the vintage Gordon. Besides working his way from 30th through the field in approximately 120 laps, his Chevrolet was the fastest throughout the day. This push is something that he has done all year. No matter what the adversity has been, Gordon has been determined to work his way through the field.
Although this team hasn’t led over 94 laps in a victory this year, it has been the quickest car in numerous events. Leading a lap in all but three races in 2014, Gordon has been able to become the most consistent driver in the sport this season. However, he can’t bank on consistency.
Anything can happen in the final two races of this round. A pit road speeding penalty at Texas or Phoenix during a green flag cycle could ruin his hopes at getting into the next round on points. He has been able to rebound from penalties throughout the year, but anything other than a top-5 result at the next two races could cost him a spot in the final round. That probably won’t happen though.
Gordon has led laps in the last two races at Phoenix and finished fifth there earlier in the year. As for Texas, this team’s intermediate program has been a close second to Team Penske drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. He was the runner-up at Texas to Logano after leading 40 laps.
The key will be staying out of trouble. He will surely be a contender for the victory in the next two events. But in a world where anything can happen in a millisecond, as we saw with Keselowski’s incident at Martinsville, HMS will definitely make sure everything that they can control will be perfect.
Carrying the banner for one of the largest teams in NASCAR is nothing new for Gordon. The pressure is on and the “Drive for Five” might end this year at Homestead, a track that he took home the trophy at in 2012.