It was a little over one year ago that Jeff Gordon sat in a Charlotte Starbucks and made a confession.
The conversation was about his career, his transition from life as Wonder Boy to life as a 40-something father of two with back problems, and the "R-word." As in retirement, the topic he worked hard to sidestep on that late-summer morning, but, looking back, was already in the process of formulating the exit strategy he would announce over the coming winter.
But on this day, with his 43rd birthday looming, he was talking about the adjustments he'd had to make in his game, no different from Peyton Manning learning he could no longer live off a deep passing game or Michael Jordan eschewing his legendary drive-and-dunk air-based scoring methods for an equally devastating rain of fallaway daggers.
"Restarts, man ... " he broached the subject with a chuckle and a shake of the head. Then he went into a deep explanation of how he'd watched race film, watched how other drivers tackled green flags. Like Jordan on the perimeter or Manning looking for dinks and dunks, he talked of backing his strategy up, way up, starting the motions back in Turn 3, not just when the flag is dropped.
The loop data proves that his work has paid off, even if only slightly. Just two years ago he ranked 15th in "fastest on restarts," measuring top speed reached over the first two green-flag laps. Last year he was fourth. This year he's fallen back to 15th.
Sunday's final restart with five laps remaining in the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway did nothing to help that statistic.
He took the green flag first, lined up on the inside front row. By the time the field hit the backstretch, he was barely hanging on to the top 20.
Yes, he rallied to finish 14th. Yes, his Chase position isn't terrible after one race; he sits on the cutoff bubble in 12th. Yes, he tied Ricky Rudd's seemingly unreachable Ironman record of 788 consecutive Cup series starts. Yes, his march to retirement at season's end had another proud, emotional day.
But it all ended up feeling like a lost opportunity. A familiar refrain for 2015 ... and restarts.
He was running third, on the move and feeling like the race might be playing into his always great hands on long green-flag runs when a debris caution with 10 laps remaining created a crucially instant decision for all of the race leaders.
Pit and take tires for the final furious dash to the finish, or stay out for track position and hope that the clean air that comes with being out front would provide enough of an aerodynamic boost to cancel out four rundown rounds of rubber.
With eight laps remaining, those leaders played a high-stakes game of chicken. Who would pit, and who would not?
Crew chief Alan Gustafson elected to stay out. But it wound up that the majority of the leaders ducked in for new shoes. Only Gordon, race leader Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin, who'd hovered in the top 10 over the race's final stages, elected to stay on the racetrack.
"That's a tough, tough call," Gordon radioed in to his crew chief. "Looks like they all came. I would not want to be you right there."
"That's all right," Gustafson replied. "You'll have the clean air. Just do the best you can."
"I knew we were going to have a tough time not spinning the tires," Gordon explained after the race. "It's real easy to spin the tires like that, especially when you're on the front row. I knew I had Denny behind me on older tires as well, so I was somewhat encouraged by that."
When the green flag was shown, Gordon relied on all that rebooted restart strategy, an aggression that led to what some thought might have been an early jump in an identical situation earlier in the race. That time he'd taken off. This time, his tires and race car were not up to the task.
"I was trying to hold pace with Kurt [Busch, on the outside]. ... Denny got a good run on me, so I blocked him. He was pushing me down, and we were on the apron. I felt like I did a good job. But I came off the apron a little too early. ... "
The No. 24 Chevy bobbled once ... twice ... three times and began to slide across and up the track. Now a moving obstacle, Gordon was left merely working to stay out of the way and not cause a multicar wreck.
Meanwhile, it should be noted that Hamlin and Busch, the other two cars that had employed the same stay-out strategy, surged ahead to finish first and third.
Gustafson's call wasn't a bad one. The same call won the race for Hamlin. It just ended up being a bad one for Gustafson's car.
"They were just motoring right on by me," Gordon described with a tone of here-we-go-again. "Once I got three-wide, we were just done. At that point I was just trying to save this awesome race car."
It was an awesome race car. It spent the entire day near the front, leading 41 laps and posting the sixth-best Driver Rating of the entire field, a 109.9.
Gordon's performances on 1.5-mile intermediate tracks have improved in the past two years. This season he has posted top-10s at Kansas and Texas, both of which are still to come in this Chase.
The past two seasons he's finished first and 10th at Homestead, home of the Chase finale. And right in the middle of it all is the short track of Martinsville, where on March 30 he also seemed to be destined for victory, but was undone by a pit-road speeding penalty.
However, for those places to really matter, he must at least hang on to his current Chase bubble position and move on to the next round of the postseason two weekends from now.
"I'm very encouraged by how good our Axalta Chevy was today," Gordon said. "That's what we've been bringing every single week. Hopefully we don't have to worry about some of these late cautions ruining our day like that."
But if they do pop up? And history says they will ...
"Then I'll keep working on those restarts. I'll get it right one of these days."
He has only nine of those days left.
Xfinity Series: It's Kyle's world
As Kyle Busch continues to crush Xfinity Series competition -- on Saturday, he led 102 of 200 laps en route to his fourth win in nine starts -- some might assume that he would back down his schedule on NASCAR's lower levels as he mounts what looks to be his best-ever charge toward finally winning the Sprint Cup title.
He's scheduled to run six more Xfinity Series companion races at Dover, Charlotte, Kansas, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.
On top of all that, he's also throwing in a Truck Series event at New Hampshire.
Camping World Truck Series: An emotional victory
John Hunter Nemechek's weather-delayed Saturday morning win at Chicagoland Speedway was among the most popular the series has seen in a long time.
The 18-year-old became the fourth-youngest driver to win in the series, taking the lead with two laps remaining when Kyle Larson ran out of fuel, and then ran out of fuel himself, coasting across the start-finish line.
The NASCAR social media timelines were immediately filled with congratulations from throughout the Sprint Cup garage, most of whom were watching from the infield, and also well wishes from racers in other series around the world.
Why? Because those within the sport know that Nemechek is racing on a shoestring budget, with only nine employees, led by longtime NASCAR mechanic/crew chief Gere Kennon and John's father, "Front Row" Joe Nemechek, who continues to spend every nickel he has on his son's racing.
Those of a certain age also know how John got his name. His uncle John was a young Truck Series racer himself before he was killed by injuries suffered in an accident at Homestead-Miami Speedway on March 16, 1997, just four days after his 27th birthday.
After his death, the track was reconfigured, and eight months later Joe won there in an Xfinity (then Busch) Series race, creating one of the most emotional Victory Lane celebrations of NASCAR's modern era as he held baby John Hunter, then just 5 months old.