2014 NASCAR Chicago

By Bob Pockrass - Sporting News

The Jeff Gordon the public sees is one of a 43-year-old driver who has nearly 22 years of Cup experience and depends on that experience — four Cup championships and 91 career victories — to lift him above the rest.

But there’s a behind-the-scenes Gordon, as well: the one who still watches Nationwide races, the one who has come to the shop more often than in the past, the one fully engaged with his crew chief as far as generating ideas to make the car go faster.

And still it’s not just the work ethic that has Gordon entering the Chase for the Sprint Cup opener at Chicagoland Speedway this weekend with one of his best shots at a title since he captured his fourth crown in 2001.

The team is in this position because of what happened last season, when Gordon didn’t make the Chase until NASCAR Chairman Brian France ruled that other drivers manipulated the finish at Richmond to get their drivers in and keep Gordon out.

Gordon finished sixth in the final standings, but it was a one-win season where he easily could have finished 13th. The season didn't reach the standards of the four-time Cup champion.

“There are times that I felt like as a team, together Jeff and I underachieved our potential,” crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “In that situation, it would have been easy for him to say, ‘It’s not me’ or he could have pointed the blame at me or made my life difficult.

“That’s one of the reasons we’re in the position we’re in. Everybody is going to have their challenges. You have to support each other through those challenges.”

The support of Gordon has paid dividends, and he has had good reason to support Gustafson. Gordon and Gustafson have known each other for 15 years, including the last four with Gustafson as a crew chief. They somewhat had a shot at winning the championship in 2012. They work at a Hendrick Motorsports organization where they have all the tools to perform well.

“We have clicked, I felt like, right from the beginning,” Gordon said. “But I don't know if we've really ever had the chemistry or been in sync like we are right now.

“The communication is really solid. I believe 100 percent in him, he believes 100 percent in me, and that's just trickling down through the whole team.”

That’s not just the team that fans see on race day. It’s the entire shop that houses the Gordon and Kasey Kahne teams.

“We evaluated ourselves; we were secure enough to say, ‘We don’t need to be...

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