Clinton, S.C., Sunday, May 11, 2014, 9:27 a.m.
The Five-Hour Energy Drink 400, which almost required the full range of the stimulating beverage, was important for two reasons.
If the Sprint Cup points leader is winless when the Chase commences, his name will not be Jeff Gordon, who won at Kansas Speedway by withstanding an astonishing last-lap rush by another Chevy pilot, Kevin Harvick.
The second noteworthy performance was by Danica Patrick, whose seventh-place finish was both a career best and richly earned. She ran near the front all night long. It was not only her best finish but her most impressive.
Back to Patrick later, but first …
Gordon, 42, won the first two Cup races at the 1.5-mile track in 2001-02, and Saturday marked its first night race, part of which was illuminated incompletely by the track’s lighting system.
While he exulted after the 89th victory of his career, Gordon did little to dissuade anyone from noting that the sand is seeping slowly through the hourglass of his majestic career.
Early in his postrace interview, Gordon said, “An old guy like me likes to be patient and finesse,” though adding that Hendrick Motorsports is providing equipment that makes him feel young again.
Later he addressed the subject of eventual retirement.
“When the cars are that good, my back just doesn’t seem to hurt as much,” Gordon said. “The whole retirement thing, I think, is thrown out there too much, and I’m probably somewhat to blame, but there’s no secret. I’m going to be 43 this year, but, man, if 43 is like this, I can’t wait for 50. This is all right. I’m having a good time. That’s why I feel young, because I’m just having a great time.”
It’s hard to think of Gordon, the onetime Wonder Boy, as old. He’ll look boyish at 60. He’ll sound that way, too. What he’ll have to decide for himself is how long he can drive that way.
Right now? Check.
Patrick showed that hers isn’t a failed experiment. She has been a slow learner, having undergone extensive Nationwide Series prep and being now in her second full season at NASCAR’s premier level. The plodding pace doesn’t mean she can’t get there.
Perhaps this is the key. She came to NASCAR with cultivated gifts but little knowledge of stock cars. Learning how to drive them was only part of her apprenticeship. She also had to learn how to feel them. Quite possibly, Kansas was the site of her “Eureka moment.” Perhaps she had some epiphany. Instead of Henry Higgins, perhaps it’s Harry Hogge proclaiming, “By George, I think she’s got it.”
Or, “Dadgum if she ain’t up on the wheel.” Something like that.
This, too, may pass. One race does not a contender make. It’s encouraging, though. Damned encouraging.
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