Jeff Gordon's last visit to Pocono Raceway was memorable for all the wrong reasons. A failed brake rotor late in the race led to arguably the hardest hit of his career, leaving his Chevrolet a battered mess.
The good news for Gordon was that he walked away unscathed, except in the points standings after finishing 34th that day. Gordon's won twice since then (Sonoma and Chicagoland), but still sits just ninth in the standings heading into Sunday's Pennsylvania 500.
There's really no margin for error as the drivers sitting third through 12th are separated by 154 points. While Gordon figures Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson and second-place Matt Kenseth are locked into the Chase for the Nextel Cup field at this point, no one else is secure.
"There are about 12 guys fighting for the last eight spots, and that's too many to worry about," Gordon said. "And we never want to focus on what they're doing or where they're running during a race. We must focus on things we can control, and that's getting the best finish possible for us."
That, of course would be a win. And Gordon's next victory will be rather historic, as it will tie him with Dale Earnhardt Sr., who won 76 times in his legendary career.
"That would be a huge honor. I'm just blown away and overwhelmed that I've gotten to 75," Gordon said. "To me, Dale is the all-time great, certainly who I have had a chance to race against. I've never really had the chance to race against Richard [Petty] or really Darrell [Waltrip] in his prime or anybody else that is up there. To me, racing against Dale [Earnhardt] is the best I've ever raced against. To match up to something that he's done and just to be one away from it is an honor."
Without those legendary benchmarks to compare him to, Gordon's content trying to equal Earnhardt's win total at this point. He'd really rather wait until recording his 76th win before talking about it, but knows much will be made of the victory if or when it occurs.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has said it would be a great accomplishment, leaving Gordon to be asked what he learned racing against the elder Earnhardt.
"He's taught me a lot more off the racetrack than he did on the racetrack. The thing that I admired so much about him is the fact that he won over so many different years [with] cars changing, the sport changing, different drivers coming in and out of the sport and yet he always continued to find a way to get to Victory Lane and battle for championships," Gordon said. "I think when you look at the span of time that he was able to do that, that's very impressive."
Earnhardt Jr. said it's hard to compare the way the two have raced. His father was known as "The Intimidator" while Gordon was referred to as "Wonder Boy" early in his career.
"Well, Dad was really aggressive and Jeff wasn't very aggressive," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It seems like he's getting more aggressive as he's getting older. Jeff was really, really smooth where dad was very sort of barbaric with the race car. They were very different in their driving styles."
To back up Earnhardt Jr.'s point about Gordon getting more aggressive, Gordon's 75th win came after contact with then-leader Kenseth at Chicagoland, setting off a stream of controversy.
The two drivers have spoken, but Kenseth said he still feels Gordon wrecked him intentionally, something Gordon disputes. What can't be argued is that Gordon is not a driver willing to back down when a race is on the line.
"I wouldn't call it a chip [on my shoulder]. I would call it determination," Gordon said. "I would call it trying to get ourselves back to where we need to be to win races and championships. In some ways we have improved. I think that we've been down and out and people have pretty much written us off. I can tell by the way guys race me.
"A perfect example was me and [Greg] Biffle at Vegas this year. I think he just expected to get up to me, get on my bumper, loosen me up and drive right on by me and I was just going to wave at him as he went by. I had too good of a car to do that and I didn't do that. I didn't put up with it and I raced him really hard. We banged down the back straightway. We got the position and ended up finishing fourth. When I have a car that is capable of winning or running up front, then I'm going to be more aggressive with it to get those good finishes."
A good finish for Gordon at Pocono would hardly be surprising. He's won three times in his 27 races and has been in the top five 12 times, the top 10 on 18 occasions. Still, his most memorable Pocono moment might have come a month ago.
Gordon is just thankful he's able to remember that wreck, one that could have been much worse had it happened a few years earlier.
"I'm very fortunate," Gordon said. "NASCAR has done a lot to improve the safety of these cars over the years. The softer walls installed by the track certainly helped, as well as Hendrick Motorsports building me a fast but very safe race car. I don't want to take another hit like that, but it's reassuring knowing the safety standards are in place. And I definitely don't want to take another hit in the point standings."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com