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Published: Monday, 8/18/2014 - Updated: 3 months ago

SPORTS COMMENTARY

Colorful veteran wins with strategy

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

BROOKLYN, Mich. — They call it yellow fever. No, not the virus spread by mosquitoes, but this one is no less infectious.

Shredded tires, dented sheet metal, flames under the hood, paint on the walls.

It was yellow fever, NASCAR style, Sunday on an overcast, unseasonably cool August day at Michigan International Speedway.

The only safe place to be was out front, and Jeff Gordon was in the vicinity from start to finish.

But he wasn’t alone until the end.

In a tedious 400-mile race that went yellow — under the caution flag — eight times for 37 of the 200 laps, this one came down to one final restart.

And Gordon pulled off one of the best ever, a real beauty, to clinch his third Sprint Cup series win of the year in the Pure Michigan 400.

We can talk about aerodynamics and push and pull, but the short version, the simple version, is that this was a veteran driver feeling he had the fastest car and simply flooring it to find out. It was pedal to the metal.

“The last one was it,” the 43-year-old Gordon said of the restart on lap 183. “We had the car to win. Our car was amazing. But whoever got out in front and got clean air had such a huge advantage. I thought I had the car to win. I just stood on the gas.”

Sure, there was more to it than that.

But it was enough to do in Joey Logano, the talented young gun who is 19 years Gordon’s junior.

Logano led for 86 laps, and was a blur for most of them. He was fast and he was tough and it didn’t figure he would blink because he had not all day during one restart after another. But …

“I wish that last caution hadn’t come out,” Logano said. “It was one too many restarts. I won every single restart [when] I was on the front row, except the last one, and here I am.”

He finished third after Kevin Harvick also outmaneuvered him in the last, scintillating battle.

OK, here’s a little of that technical stuff we have to cover. In earlier restarts, also with Logano in the lead, the youngster tended to slow a bit and bottle up his competition.

Gordon studied that and, on the last one, anticipated Logano’s move and crawled up on his left rear quarter-panel. Once he got there, he picked up some draft from Harvick, who was on Gordon’s rear bumper. Their aerodynamics resulted in Logano being drawn back.

But that’s all gear-head, wind-tunnel talk. Let’s try for some simple, straight talk.

Team owner Rick Hendrick, the best in the business right now, looks at Gordon and sees a mature driver, a smarter one, a racer who has experienced everything and is ready for anything.

But that final restart looked like the old Jeff Gordon, the aggressive and maybe even cocky driver of yesteryear who simply leaned on everything he had, as you might expect a winner of 91 career races to do.

There was a lot of yellow out there Sunday, but the color doesn’t apply to Gordon.

So was this the new Gordon or the old? Or both?

Hendrick just smiled.

“What I see now is how smart he is,” the boss said. “You just don’t see him make any mistakes. I think his years of experience [are] paying off for him right now.

“When you’ve got the fastest car and everybody is racing you really hard, especially on restarts, you have to have just enough aggressiveness. They’re single-file driving into that corner, and Jeff is up on [Logano’s] quarter-panel at 210 [miles per hour], that’s what the young Jeff Gordon did.

“But it was the old, too, because experience plays a role. You get in that position with 10 [actually 17 laps] or so to go, he can see it and he’s going to take it from you. So, yeah, maybe it was the Jeff Gordon of 12 or more years ago. He showed he hasn’t lost anything.

“When the chips are down and it’s time to go get the [checkered] flag, I’ll take him every time.”

And if he doesn’t want to take Gordon, Hendrick has options.

Right now, Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Jimmie Johnson — all of them members of the Hendrick Motorsports team — rank 1-2-4 in the points race for NASCAR’s Chase, the late-season playoff run.

Not a bad group. But Hendrick is right. It would be hard to bet against the No. 24 Chevy and the young/​old Gordon driving it.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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