Following his third win of the season at Atlanta, Jeff Gordon feels well positioned to make a run for the Sprint Cup title in the upcoming Chase.
The four-time Sprint Cup series champion dominated for most of the running last Tuesday in the rain-delayed event, but had to fend off a charging Jimmie Johnson in the closing laps, finally keeping him at bay to secure three more bonus points toward his Chase seeding.
Gordon has been in the Chase for the past six years but has not been in close contention for the title since 2007, when he was the main opponent of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. Back then he won six races, four of them during the regular season, finally coming second to Johnson in the standings.
The 40-year-old believes that his third victory of the season proves he's got what it takes to really be in the thick of the fight for an elusive fifth Sprint Cup series title. He has also led more laps than Johnson this year, proving his outright speed is up there with the current best.
"We've proven that we can win," said Gordon. "I think you have to win to be able to win the championship and you also have to send a message to your competitors that they know you can win. And also the laps led. Getting top fives is important, because if you can get top fives, it shows you can win.
"If you get enough top fives, usually you'll find yourself in Victory Lane. The same thing with leading laps. You lead enough laps, you're probably going to find yourself getting to Victory Lane. And so I think those two things are very significant right now the laps led and the fact that we're pulling off the wins when we're strong."
Gordon claimed his 85th Cup career victory on Tuesday at Atlanta and is now in sole possession of third in the all-time winners list behind legends Richard Petty and David Pearson. His three wins this year are the most he's ever claimed during a year since 2007, all coming at very different tracks: Phoenix, Pocono and Atlanta.
Earlier this year, Gordon wasn't as confident of his team having championship-caliber form, especially on intermediate tracks such as Atlanta where it struggled early on. His win this week thus comes as a major boost, as those are the tracks that prevail during the last 10 weeks of the season. The Hendrick driver is optimistic ahead of the Chase and believes he's never been in such good shape entering the Chase since it was implemented in 2004.
"I mean, '07 we were strong, but the difference in '07 was I dreaded going to Phoenix in '07," said Gordon. "And I know that the track has changed since earlier this year, when we won there. But I'm looking forward to going to Phoenix, because [crew chief] Alan [Gustafson] is really good there. And we build great cars for that type of racetrack.
"We've had to work really hard this year at the mile-and-a-half stuff. That's what I love. Right now our momentum has shifted to make us better at those tracks. They're going to be significant in the Chase.
"I feel like when you go into the debriefs and you're talking to the team in the meetings and you look at how we're planning, you know, how we're improving and the areas that we can get better in and how we're addressing it, to me this is the best that we've been since I can remember. Certainly since the Chase has started."
Gordon's last Cup title came in 2001, before the playoff format came into force. Since then, Gordon's best championship result has been his runner-up spot in 2007.