DOVER, Del. (AP) — His career championship count has been stuck on four since 2001. Jeff Gordon might as well have reset that number to zero since the inception of the Chase for the championship.
Gordon has done it all in a career that long ago marked him as one of NASCAR’s all-time greats.
The one blemish is failing to have won a Cup championship since the Chase format was instituted in 2004. He’s seemingly figured out everything in the No. 24 Chevrolet, winning Daytona and the Brickyard, except how to find that consistent streak over the final 10 races to win that elusive fifth title.
If NASCAR ever went back to the old way of deciding a champion, Gordon probably wouldn’t complain.
"Do I wish that we had the old points system? Sort of," Gordon said Friday. "I liked the old points system. It worked very well for me, but that is a personal thing."
The 38-year-old Gordon takes it personally that he hasn’t been able to bring home another season title to Hendrick Motorsports. Team owner Rick Hendrick might not mind so much since another of his star drivers, Jimmie Johnson, has won the championship three straight years.
Gordon, who has battled a bad back all season, still has the ambition of a rookie to win it all again.
"I don’t like to finish second or anywhere after that. That is what motivates you," Gordon said. "I have never won a Sprint Cup before so, to me, it is like never winning a championship. The four that we have won are something that we are very proud of, but it is under the old format, so I feel like we are as hungry as we have ever been to win a championship."
Gordon finished 15th in the first Chase race last week at New Hampshire and sits in 10th place heading into Week 2 at Dover International Speedway. He’s 102 points behind leader Mark Martin, also a Hendrick teammate.
Gordon finished seventh last season.
The 50-year-old Martin won four races in the 26-race regular season leading up to the Chase. Gordon no longer takes a spin in Victory Lane with the same regularity as he did in the late 1990s (three straight double-digit win totals) or even as recently as 2007 (six times).
He shockingly failed to win a race last year for the first time since 1993 and had only one victory this season. He’s still had 25 top-five finishes in the last two years to at least position himself as a contender over the final two months of the season.
"This past offseason was a huge motivator for me because it was the most time I have ever had to really relax and step away and realize how much me personally wanted to come back this year and be very competitive and put behind us the year that we had last year," Gordon said.
Johnson, who won the pole on Friday, said Gordon is as dedicated as ever to win another championship.
"It’s not that he wasn’t intense and committed to it before, but as time goes on and the questions are asked, I see more intensity in his eyes, more desire from him to get that fifth championship," he said.
Gordon led the points standings in both 2004 and 2007 when the field was reset for the Chase races. He also posted his best finishes those seasons, third in ’04 and second in ’07. Gordon missed the Chase in 2005.
On the 1-mile concrete track at Dover, Gordon has a solid chance at moving up the standings. He’s won four times here, but finished a disappointing 26th in the first Dover race in May.
One more finish like that over the final nine races, and Gordon can almost wave goodbye to any shot at No. 5.
"It’s not our best track, but it’s a decent track for us, so we’ve got to minimize the damage and try to maximize the performance," he said.
He also has to pay attention to a balky back that has aggravated him for more than a year. Gordon has hopped behind the wheel with various aches, pains and endless discomfort. The back woes might eventually accelerate his retirement plans, or at least make him consider running a partial schedule. He could take his cue from Martin, who scaled back for two seasons before making a full-fledged comeback and championship push with Hendrick.
Gordon said he would love to step away and run a limited schedule if he could be guaranteed a return to a prominent ride.
In his next breath, Gordon acknowledged he could never really cut back his schedule. If he’s going to compete, it will be all 36 races for a shot pulling into Homestead-Miami Speedway for the finale and a championship at stake.
"I don’t see it ever happening for me," Gordon said. "I love racing for the championship."
He’d like to just win one in the Chase before it’s all done for good.