Jeff Gordon arrives at Watkins Glen today having scoring a much-needed win at Pocono last week. One of the greatest names in the sport’s history, he is also one of the greatest names in Glen history, having been named one of the track’s Legends of The Glen. With four wins on the historic 11-turn track, one would think that it’s a great chance for Gordon to gain some desperately needed momentum this season.
But it’s Gordon himself who throws the caution flag here.
“It’s been a while since we’ve been the team to beat at Watkins Glen,” he said.
The Jeff Gordon who excelled at Watkins Glen was the one with the feathered hair and the technicolor rainbow fire suit, the one who led the sport up the television charts to its highest heights, including right down Madison Avenue.
But those four wins came from 1997 to ’99 and in 2001. The last Gordon to win at the Glen wasn’t even Jeff — it was no-relation Robby in 2003. Tony Stewart has even driven past Gordon as King of the Glen, winning five times since 2002.
There wouldn’t be a better time for Gordon to reclaim the success he’s had at the Glen. The win at Pocono put him — for now — in the 12th and final spot for the Sprint Cup postseason. But with five races to go before the 10-race playoff, he’ll need another good week to preserve his spot.
“The first thing we have to do is have a good-performing car — we’ve had that obviously a lot this year,” said Gordon, 41. “I’ll be honest. In the past few years, we have not had that at Watkins Glen. We sort of lost that edge and great performance that we’ve had in the past when we were winning there at Watkins Glen. We kind of lost that.
“I’m really optimistic because I feel like we made some great gains at Sonoma this year, had a nice finish there. Qualified good there, as well. Sonoma and Watkins Glen are different, but we feel like the test we did at Road Atlanta earlier in the year, the things we’re finding to improve the car in performance is going to pay off at Watkins Glen as well.
“I’m hoping that’s what we do first. Then knowing now that things can go our way if we put ourselves in the right place at the right time, we’re very capable of pulling off top-five finishes and even a win.”
Last week at Pocono, Gordon was in the right spot — in front — when the race was called due to rainstorms. After a season in which he had plenty of bad fortune, he and his team feel things may have swung the other way.
“We’ve talked about it several times, about going through a season like we’re going through this year where we’ve had great race cars and have for different reasons come up short for the victory, and even at times with solid finishes that put us far back in the points,” he said. “When you go through something like that, it really tests you. It tests every aspect of the team, personalities. It either pulls you apart or it brings you closer together. I think the fact that we have been able to persevere, it’s brought us closer and stronger together.
“But eventually you have to have a win. I know this is probably not the victory that we were really looking for or the way that we wanted to win it, but the way our season has gone, as close as we’ve been, you know what, even the win under these circumstances is still going to be a great boost for us to go through these next five races.”
Gordon’s celebration at Pocono was in contrast with the young gun who exulted at the Glen. It was the first time his whole family was able to join him for the victory lane celebration (in this case, a victory garage celebration due to the rain). Stories across the country came with a suitable-for-framing picture of the clan celebrating the win: wife Ingrid Vandebosch, 5-year-old daughter Ella and 2-year-old son Leo.
“I didn’t care if it was under the shed or in the garage,” he said at Pocono. “That experience ... means so much more than anything else. Even my wife, she’s not been able to experience all those wins, those multiple-win seasons and stuff. I want her to be able to feel what it’s like. I know how much it means to her. Ella is getting to the age where it’s exciting. Leo was able to hold up his finger, No. 1, that was cool.”
Family life, as it does with anyone, has brought on different challenges for Gordon.
“I feel like prior to having children, you know, you try to prioritize things, you’re committed to racing, you’re committed to certain levels of time and input that you put in, whether it be work on my foundation, time with my wife,” said Gordon. “But now, adding two children to that, it makes it very challenging, no doubt about that. But my priorities juggle. When I go to the racetrack, I put my head down and I focus on the race car. When I’m at the shop with the team, I sink myself into that. The rest of the time, the family is my priority.
“Juggling that gets tough at times. Fortunately, I have a very understanding wife. She knows how important racing is to me. But I make it a point to make sure she knows that her and our kids are the most important thing to me. I want to do everything I can as a dad to be the best dad that I can.
“You know, it certainly creates challenges throughout the year ’cause we travel a lot. Racing takes a lot of time. But every bit of time I have when I’m not racing, I’m with the family. Every bit of time I’m not with the family, I’m focused on the team.”