As teammate Jimmie Johnson seized control of the NASCAR Sprint Cup series with five consecutive championships, Jeff Gordon faded into the background.
After winning six races in 2007 and finishing second in the Chase for the Championship, Gordon only won one race the next three seasons. He did, however, finish third in the 2009 Chase.
Gordon is a four-time Cup champion, but his last title was 10 years ago.
For a veteran driver to stay relevant, he or she has to win races and be a Chase contender. Yesterday, in the Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway, Gordon won his second race of the season and climbed to 11th in points.
The victory was the 84th of Gordon's distinguished career, tying him with Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison for third on the all-time list. Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105) are 1-2.
Gordon also tied Bill Elliott for most career wins at Pocono (5); Gordon's last victory at Pocono was in 2007.
Even though Gordon and Johnson are teammates and friends, watching Johnson reign in the Cup series has worn on Gordon.
"It doesn't matter if it's your teammate, friend or another competitor," Gordon said. "You go through cycles in life. I'm glad, in some ways, that I've been through, I don't want to say, a down cycle.
"We were living at the peak of the mountain there for a number of years. When you're there you know you're going to get knocked off eventually. You work harder and it means more when you get back, and I hope we can get back there."
Neither Gordon nor any other driver is likely to reach the Gordon plateau of 1996-'98 when he won 10, 10 and 13 races. Now there are more elite drivers and teams.
"When we were doing that, [rivals] were scared of us," Gordon said. "Truthfully, we just have not put the numbers together [lately], so I don't expect anybody to look at us as a real threat.
"The most disappointing thing to me was, we came into the season talking about stuff we were going to do. We went to Phoenix [the second race] and [won], then it kind of fell off the cliff for us [slipping to 19th in points]. Days like today give us the confidence and momentum that the competition might need to start worrying about us. But we've got to do it consistently."
Gordon is aware of the whispers the past few years that as he ages (he turns 40 Aug. 4), he isn't as skilled as he was a decade ago.
"You appreciate those wins a whole lot more when they come," he said. "Being a parent, I appreciate it more to experience [wins] with them. As I've gotten older, I feel like I've gotten smarter in some ways about driving the car. I feel like I still have a lot to offer."
Polesitter Kurt Busch was runner-up in the race, with his younger brother Kyle third. Kurt led 37 laps.
Kyle's No. 18 Toyota failed post-race inspection because the left front was too low. The car will be checked again early this week at NASCAR Research and Development center in North Carolina. Busch could be docked points and his team could be fined, but he won't lose his third-place finish.
Driving the No. 24 Chevrolet, Gordon passed Juan Pablo Montoya with 41 laps to go and led all but four laps the rest of the way. Gordon paced a total of 39 laps; Montoya led 38. Denny Hamlin led the most laps, 76.
After racing against Gordon for a long time, Kurt Busch tips his hat to Gordon's success and longevity.
"It's impressive to see what he's done over his career, not just in this decade [but] back all the way to the '90s," Kurt Busch said. "He's a true legend in our sport. When I came in as a rookie , I set the bar to try to compete with him."
As often happens in races at Pocono, not much happened during the first 140 of the 200 laps. There were no spins or crashes and only four caution periods in the race, all for debris on the race track. Cynics were saying that consuming several 1.93-fluid ounce bottles of the race sponsor's product was the only way to stay focused on the race.
Hamlin, a four-time winner at Pocono in only 10 previous races, dominated the first half of the 500-miler, leading 75 laps. With 45 laps to go, Hamlin was running third when, following a pit stop, he returned to the pits with a flat left rear tire on his No. 11 Toyota. He finished 19th.
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