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Being the NASCAR points leader just isn’t the same to Jeff Gordon

By Randy Covitz The Kansas City Star (MCT) • Updated May 9, 2014 at 11:05 PM

As befitting the NASCAR Sprint Cup points leader, Jeff Gordon’s hauler will occupy the first spot in the garage area at Kansas Speedway this weekend.

But Gordon, a four-time Sprint cup champion, is the first to admit his choice parking space doesn’t mean much for now.

“It’s always good to be No. 1,” Gordon said. “It’s never a bad thing. But of all the seasons to be No. 1, this is probably the least important one.”

That’s because the new format for claiming berths in the Chase for the Sprint Cup will be determined by wins, not points.

Gordon has been consistent this season — seven top-10 finishes, including two second-place finishes in 10 starts — but he has yet to win a race heading into the 5-hour Energy 400 on Saturday night at Kansas Speedway.

The 16-car Chase field will be determined first by those who win races and are in the top 30 in points, and through 10 events, eight different drivers have won. If there aren’t 16 winners, the rest of the Chase field will be filled out by the points standings, so all is not lost for Gordon, and the others who have yet to win.

“Leading the points gives us an advantage to push harder for those wins,” Gordon said. “Last year, we were in a position where we had to be somewhat conservative, because we had to gain points just to get in. This year, you just go all out. We’re in a position where we can be extremely aggressive.

“We’re doing everything we can to finish with wins every weekend. That’s all we can do every race. I feel confident we’re going to get ourselves in the Chase. To me, it’s more than just being in the Chase, it’s being in the Chase with a shot to win. You don’t want to give up points to anyone who has multiple wins.”

Gordon, 42, is not the only big name without a win this season. He is one of four former Sprint Cup champions, including teammate and six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, three-time champion Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth who have yet to win this season.

Kenseth, who won a series-most seven races in 2013 (including last spring’s race at Kansas Speedway), is second in points, three behind Gordon. Johnson is seventh, and Stewart is 21st.

All four, incidentally, are two-time winners at Kansas Speedway, though Gordon’s two wins came in the first two years of the track, 2001 and 2002, well before it was repaved and resurfaced in 2012.

“I love Kansas. . . . It used to be one of my favorite tracks,” Gordon said with a smile. “It’s moved a little bit further down the list. . . . As the track ages and depending on what kind of tire Goodyear has, and how good our car is, it can move back up there real quick.”

Gordon, whose last win was last fall at Martinsville, Va., when he finished sixth in the Chase, said it’s too early to panic for those drivers without a win.

“I don’t think anyone is in panic mode unless they’re outside the top 10 in points,” Gordon said. “I would say anyone outside the top eight or 10 in points now that hasn’t had a win, yeah, there’s definitely going to be in a little more urgency.”

Gordon, with 88 career victories, ranks third on the all-time Sprint Cup list behind seven-time champion Richard Petty’s 200 and three-time champion David Pearson’s 105.

While his one-time goal of 100 wins now seems unattainable, Gordon would like nothing better to notch No. 89 and qualify for the Chase, where he can shoot for a fifth championship and first since 2001.

And if he were to win that fifth title, Gordon has hinted in the past he just might drive the No. 24 into the sunset.

NASCAR Hall of Famer and three-time champion Darrell Waltrip doesn’t think Gordon would walk away without a chance at tying Johnson’s six championships or even Petty’s holy grail of seven.

“If he doesn’t get the fifth one, that’s when he’ll walk out,” Waltrip said. “That’s the way athletes are. They don’t quit on top. Nobody’s going to win a championship and say, ‘That’s it, boys. See you later.’

“They’re thinking, ‘I’ve got one more in me. Then I’ll be even with my teammate. I’ll have six. Then when I get six, who says I can’t get seven?’ There are a lot of 50-year-olds who have won races.”

Gordon sees the logic in that.

“I still have a few more years left in me,” he said. “After the year I’m having, we’d probably want to try and do it again. If the cars and the team continue to be this good, and I’m having this much fun, why not?

“But I also can’t think of a better way to go out in a sport than to go out on top like that.”

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