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NASCAR vet Jeff Gordon looking to thrill fans, secure Chase berth

No matter how much an athlete achieves, fans always want more. One more win, one more championship, one more did-you-see-that type of moment. The great ones exceed those expectations and thrill their adoring audiences time after time.

Eventually, time wins. Michael Jordan's dominance ended. Tiger Woods' invincibility faded. Brett Favre's body told him it was time to quit playing football.

At age 41, Jeff Gordon isn't ready to retire, but his time will come as it does for any competitor. The popular driver still excites fans but wins have not been as frequent in recent years whether it was misfortune, mistakes or mechanical issues.

Saturday at Richmond International Raceway could be a night of greatness for Gordon. He could race his way into this year's title Chase and provide the magical moment for fans and the sport that he once did so often.

This is Gordon's final chance to secure a Chase wild-card spot. Unless something unusual happens, it will likely come down to a duel with Kyle Busch for the final spot. Trailing Busch by 12 points, Gordon knows what his best option is.

"I'm not going into it thinking that we've got to finish 12 positions ahead of Kyle,'' Gordon said after his runner-up finish to Denny Hamlin on Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway. "I'm thinking we've got to win.''

It used to be when Gordon needed a win, he got it. It didn't matter who he raced or where he raced, he and his team were better. He won more than a third of the races between 1996-98 and it seemed likely that he would surpass the seven championships Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt each won. Gordon remains at four. He last won a crown in 2001.

While he narrowly lost the championship to teammate Jimmie Johnson in 2007, Gordon's fortunes have changed. He's won five races since 2008. Eleven drivers -- a quarter of a starting field -- have won more races during that time.

Gordon is still strong, still leads races and still can win but many of his accomplishments are recorded in books that collect dust. Yes, had it not been for Jimmie Johnson or the Chase, Gordon would have more titles but Johnson did make it to Cup and NASCAR created the Chase in 2004.

Of course, saying Gordon would have had more success without Johnson and the Chase is like saying Dale Earnhardt would have won more races and championships without Gordon arriving so early in NASCAR. Or saying David Pearson would have won more had there not been a Richard Petty.

They happened and there's nothing that can be done to change that.

Gordon has a chance to do something he hasn't done -- win when he all but has to do so to make the Chase. When an athlete or team faces such a situation and succeeds, it makes sports special. This could be Gordon's moment. It will need to be.

While problems could plague Busch at Richmond, history shows it's not likely. Busch's average finish at Richmond is 4.7. That's a grade-point average for a student excelling in advance placement classes, not a finishing position. Busch has placed outside the top 10 only twice in 15 starts at Richmond.

Since beating Busch by more than 12 spots won't be easy, Gordon's best bet is to win the race to make the Chase just as Jeremy Mayfield did in 2004.

It seems simple enough for the sport's third all-time winningest driver. Yet, Gordon last won at Richmond in September 2000 -- when Earnhardt was still alive.

That doesn't matter to Gordon. History won't determine the setup in his car or pit strategy or anything that will relate to Saturday night. This is one race, 400 laps, 300 miles and you just see what happens.

"We're just going to fight all the way to that last lap,'' Gordon said. "I think everybody expects there to be a little more pushing and shoving on the short track. So that's definitely going to ramp up the intensity.''

Think about it if he wins Saturday night. It would reward a faithful fan base that has not seen him victorious as often in recent years. It would show those who did not witness Gordon's dominance in the 1990s what Gordon can do. While respected, Gordon is not feared as much by some fans as Johnson, Tony Stewart or Busch.

Look out if Gordon makes the Chase.

For months, people have said that Gordon would be a serious title threat should he overcome all the problems and bad luck he's had this season and make the Chase.

A win at Richmond would give him finishes of third (Bristol), second (Atlanta) and first (Richmond) in his last three races. Go further back. He's finished outside 12th just twice in the last 11 races. He spun in oil on the last lap at Watkins Glen running seventh and finished 21st, and his engine blew at Michigan and he placed 28th. Other than that, he's finished worse than sixth only one other time since Father's Day in June.

Maybe Saturday night will be a prelude of what could come in the Chase for Gordon.

"I wouldn't say I'm nervous, but it's certainly intense,'' Gordon said earlier this weekend at Atlanta. "When it's that intense, it makes you have to step your game up.''

Just like the greats often do.

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