Jeff Gordon scoffed at being dubbed the championship favorite with three races left.
“Who makes up these odds?” Gordon asked, shaking his head.
Told Las Vegas, Gordon said: “I don’t know how you make odds with what I’m seeing out there right now.”
Gordon is right in the sense that anything seems possible in NASCAR’s new Chase format. We’ve seen just about everything these first two rounds.
We’ve seen a driver — Brad Keselowski — need a win to advance and get it in impressive fashion at Talladega. We’ve seen a driver — Kyle Busch — feel he’d built a big enough points cushion only to be eliminated at the end. We’ve seen drivers — Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth — advance without wins, and other drivers — Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson — eliminated with multiple wins.
But it’s hard to argue with Vegas pegging Gordon as the odds-on favorite in this unpredictable format. He’s the most accomplished driver of the eight remaining in contention, going for his fifth championship.
Gordon, infamously dubbed “Boy Wonder” by Dale Earnhardt Sr. when he was winning championships as a 23-year-old in 1995, is now the savvy veteran who has revitalized his career after more than a decade since his last championship.
“I’m extremely hungry,” Gordon said. “What I’m hungry the most about is just knowing that I’ve got a great car and a great team that’s capable of winning this championship.”
Gordon is in the best shape of any Chase driver after a second-place run at Martinsville last week to open the Eliminator Round, and goes into Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway with his confidence as high as it’s been in a long time.
“We’ve been really strong and we started early on in the season running well,” Gordon said. “We’ve just been able to fine-tune on that as the year has gone on and that builds chemistry and communication. You back that up with good performance and wins and getting in the position that we’re in now and, yeah, you’re confidence is high.
“Mine is. It’s awesome. It feels good to be feeling this good in this position at this stage of the season.”
Gordon already has four wins this season, tied for third-most in the series and his most since he had five in 2007. He’s also tied for the most top-10 runs this season with 21, including 13 top-five finishes.
Gordon comes to Texas feeling good about his chances at this track, too. He has one career win and finished second in the spring. And he had a successful qualifying run on Friday, as he’ll start from the second position – his starting position when he won the spring 2009 race.
TMS president Eddie Gossage would have no issues celebrating with Gordon in Victory Lane, and knows that very well might happen.
“Jeff, to me, stands as the favorite to win the championship,” Gossage said. “But that could change Sunday and it seems to be changing week by week. But he’s in great position.
“It’s kind of fun to see him transition from ‘Wonder Boy’ to the sage, old veteran. He’s got a lot of wisdom that a lot of these other guys in the Chase don’t have, so I think he’s in a great place and is a sentimental favorite.”
At 43, Gordon certainly ranks as the biggest name and feel-good storyline in the Chase, trying to recapture his past glory. His fellow competitors know that.
“Way back in the day, it used to be fans either loved him or hated him,” Denny Hamlin said. “Now, I think most people like Jeff because he’s the veteran and he’s the name that they recognize.
“Overall, I think anyone’s got a fair shot at this, but they’ve obviously shown the speed week in and week out to separate themselves as one of those true favorites.”
3 drivers to watch
Matt Kenseth: He’s the pole-sitter and trying to secure a spot in the championship round of the Chase. The only thing that might stand between him is Kevin Harvick.
Tony Stewart: He’s had a tough season off the track in the wake of a tragic accident in which he struck and killed a 20-year-old driver during a dirt-track race. But he’s running well and became the first driver to touch 200 mph during qualifying on an intermediate track.
Brad Keselowski: He finds himself deep in the field, starting 26th. His championship dreams are already hanging by a thread and he needs a strong finish, most likely a win, in order to advance.
The Jeff Gordon file
Car: No. 24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet
Chase position: 1st, in points
Cup championships: 4 (1995, 1997, 1998, 2001)
Texas wins: 1 (2009, spring)
On TMS: “I love this track. This is my kind of track. It is a track where it has a lot of grip, but it falls off and you have to search around the race track. All I can tell you is I love this track. I’m excited about our car, how it is handling so far. I like our chances this weekend.”
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This story was originally published November 1, 2014 2:59 PM.