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In the Rearview: Kansas

May 12th, 2014 1:39 pm by Dave Ongie

In the Rearview: Kansas

Jeff Gordon celebrates after Saturday night's Sprint Cup victory at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan. (AP Photo)

I apologize in advance for making you feel incredibly old, but facts are facts.

In less than two weeks, Jeff Gordon will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of his first Sprint Cup Series victory. Yes, it really has been that long since the mustachioed young phenom took NASCAR by storm by winning the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte.

In those days, Gordon was the Wonder Boy, a racer simply scratching the surface of his ability as a stock car driver. The sky seemed to be the limit, and Gordon didn't waste any time launching himself in the stratosphere by winning four Cup titles between 1995 and 2001.

That being said, the past decade has brought Gordon back down to Earth. A bad back started to diminish his ability to wheel a race car and, as a result, the droughts between victories started to reach alarming lengths. To make matters worse, Jimmie Johnson became the new golden boy at Hendrick Motorsports, leaving Gordon in the dust by winning six Cup titles.

It was bad enough for Gordon that Johnson had stolen his spot in the limelight, but when Hendrick developmental driver Chase Elliott won back-to-back Nationwide Series races early this season, talk started swirling that the kid might be destined to drive the No. 24 Chevrolet when Gordon retired.

But lost in all the hype surrounding Elliott, who hadn't even been born when Gordon won his first Cup race in 1994, is the fact that Gordon entered Saturday's race in Kansas as the series points leader. While he hasn't dominated the headlines this season, Gordon has dominated the competition, finishing in the top 10 in eight out of the first 11 races.

And on Saturday night, Gordon grabbed the headlines once again by holding off Kevin Harvick to win his 89th career Cup race and punch his ticket into the Chase.

For all the obsession with youth in the sport, the recent changes NASCAR has made have all helped a 42-year-old rejuvenate his career. Throwing the Car of Tomorrow onto the scrap heap and bringing softer tire compounds back to the track has allowed Gordon's strengths as a driver to come to the forefront.

When Gordon started racing stock cars, taking care of one's equipment was the key to being fast and winning races. But the CoT changed all that. Not only was the unwieldy vehicle an indestructible tank, it had such a high center of gravity that it put a tremendous amount of stress on right-side tires.

After a disastrous race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2008, Goodyear had no choice but to put hard tire compounds on the cars in order to avoid catastrophic tire problems. The key to victory became using brute force to get to the front and holding off the competition on tires that never seemed to lose any speed.

The racing suffered during that period in part because pit strategy was dumbed down. With no tire falloff, drivers rarely opted for fresh tires late in races when track position was everything. But now that NASCAR has gone back to the future, so to speak, and reintroduced tire wear into the sport, a variety of different strategies among the leaders late in races has created plenty of drama.

And for Gordon, it has allowed his considerable skill set to shine through. As he said in the postrace interview in Victory Lane on Saturday, "An old guy like me likes to be patient and use finesse."

The fact that Gordon now has that option is a sign that the sport is becoming healthier than it was five years ago. The more styles and strategies of racing are possible, the more drivers are in the mix every week. That makes the sport more unpredictable and more exciting for fans.

It has also put a spring back into Gordon's step as he returns to Charlotte to mark the 20th anniversary of his first Cup win.

"I'm going to be 43 this year and I feel 25 again," Gordon said.

Looks like Gordon is joining NASCAR's youth movement, even if he has to turn back the clock to do so.

Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at dongie@timesnews.net. You can hear him Monday mornings during the 9 o'clock hour on "Good Morning Tri-Cities" with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.

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