Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Could Jeff Gordon Be Back?

There's a reason Dale Earnhardt once called Jeff Gordon "Wonder Boy."

A lot of it had to do with Gordon's relative youth when he first broke into the Cup Series back in 1993 -- though he was still older than Trevor Bayne, this year's Daytona 500 champion. But more than anything, Gordon was damn good. So good, he beat Earnhardt for the 1995 series title. Then he finished second to teammate Terry Labonte in 1996.

Then he dominated in 1997 and 1998, winning back-to-back Cup titles and tying a modern-era NASCAR record with 13 wins in 1998. That's three championships and a second-place finish in four years.

Not quite five in a row, but still damn impressive.

Gordon later won the title in 2001, and along the way, Gordon won three Daytona 500s and four Brickyard 400s. Following Sunday's convincing win at Phoenix, Gordon has 83 career wins, tied for fifth with Cale Yarborough on the all-time list. He's one away from tying Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison for third all-time.

It's conceivable that Gordon could surpass those legends this season. While he won't touch David Pearson (second all-time with 105 wins), and no one will ever touch Richard Petty's 200 wins, ending your career third in wins is no small feat.

But the more immediate question should be: is Gordon a title contender?

I said before the season started that he was, and Sunday's performance only reinforces that belief. The offseason shuffle at Hendrick Motorsports that paired Gordon with crew chief Alan Gustafson -- widely considered the smartest Cup crew chief not named Chad Knaus -- had a lot of experts expecting big things from the No. 24 this season, and I think moving Gordon's shop out of the same building as Jimmie Johnson helps, too.

Sunday's win snapped a 66-race winless streak for Gordon, but it wasn't like he was uncompetitive during that stretch. He finished second eight times during that streak, and there were at least four races last year that Gordon should've won. Though he went winless last season, Gordon still ran well enough to make the Chase.

I wouldn't call Gordon the favorite -- that title goes to Johnson until someone beats him -- but the greatest driver of the last 20 years is once again a factor, and it wouldn't surprise me if come Homestead, we're looking at another five-time champion.

Is that wishful thinking? Maybe. But after Sunday, there might be something to it.

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