LONG POND, Pa. — Jeff Gordon made his win at Pocono Raceway this time last year a family affair. His 86th career Sprint Cup victory was the first time his wife, Ingrid Vandebosch, and both his two young children joined him in Victory Lane.
The win also thrust Gordon into wild card contention for the Cup's Chase for the Championship. (He finished 10th in the Chase.)
Fast forward a season. Gordon enters Pocono today seeking his first victory since win No. 87 in last season's finale. More crucially, he hopes to keep his precarious 10th-place spot in the Chase standings.
He again can make a win one to remember. The once-dominant "Rainbow Warrior" turns 42 today, long removed from the era in which he was always the driver to beat at any track.
But the birthday boy still knows how to drive. He hasn't forgotten how to win, either. Yet he still is chasing that elusive fifth Cup championship, 11 years after his most recent one.
"This year has been a strange year for us," Gordon said. "I feel like last year we showed a little bit more speed up to this point, and I felt like all we needed were some breaks to go our way and a few slight changes to get ourselves in. This year we just can't seem to really get ahold of it."
He needs to figure it out, fast.
Gordon is one point ahead of three-time series champ Tony Stewart, five points ahead of Martin Truex and six up on 2012 champ Brad Keselowski. The final two wild card spots in the Chase go to the drivers 11th through 20th with the most wins. If Gordon falls out of the top 10 and doesn't win a race, he'll be on the outside.
"Every year we have gone through this, it's a different kind of stress level," he said. "There are stress levels of meeting your full potential, there are stress levels of trying to not let some silly thing happen, or there is the stress level of one little incident."
One little incident Gordon had to deflect was his recent comments about fan turnout for the NASCAR race at Pocono compared with the smaller crowd at the IndyCar race at the track in July. The remarks were taken as a shot at the open wheel series.
With rain washing out Sprint Cup practice Saturday, Gordon, who attended the IndyCar race, hit Twitter to defend his love for both series: "Never meant to take a shot at anyone. I love #IndyCar just wanted to recognize how fortunate we are to get the crowds that we get in @NASCAR."
No NASCAR driver has mastered Pocono like Gordon. His six wins are the most at the triangular 2½-mile track, and he has 18 top-five finishes and 28 top-10s in his 41 Pocono starts.
"It's a good track for us, a good place for us to come and fight and do battle like what we've been used to doing this year and last year to claw our way into the Chase," said Gordon, who starts 22nd in today's GoBowling.com 400. "There's not enough points that are safe enough, and you want to get those wins to try to secure things up for you."