He is no longer Wonder Boy, that derisive nickname the late Dale Earnhardt tagged Jeff Gordon with in 1995 when the fresh-faced Gordon was 23 and seemingly winning every other week on his way to his first Cup championship. Eighteen years later, Gordon now has stripes of gray on the sides of his hair, the paint scheme of a driver in winter, and he's struggling not only to win races, but also to simply remain relevant in NASCAR.
On Sunday Gordon and the rest of the Cup series will race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in one NASCAR's four major events of the season: The Coca-Cola 600. It's the longest race of the year (600 miles) and arguably the most physically taxing. Because the race starts in daylight (6 p.m. EST) and ends in darkness, the track conditions change dramatically. The driver and the team most adept at altering their car's setup to the cooling asphalt (which translates into more tire grip) will most likely reach Victory Lane.
Gordon used to be a master at this. Between 1994 and '98, he won the 600 three times. But since 2004, he's been shut out of the winner's circle and his average finish over that stretch is 20.9.
Gordon is winless in 2013 and 13th in the standings, which means he's the fourth best driver in the four-driver stable at Hendrick Motorsports. (His three teammates are on track to qualify for the Chase: Jimmie Johnson is first in the standings; Dale Earnhardt Jr. fourth; and Kasey Kahne sixth.) This raises a legitimate question: Are Gordon's best days behind him?
There's no argument that Gordon has endured more hard, violent crashes in the last seven years than any other driver in NASCAR (check this one out at Pocono in 2006 and this one at Las Vegas in 2008 and this one at Watkins Glen in 2009 ), and he'll be the first to admit that he's not as aggressive as he once was. He says he makes up for this with experience, savvy and smarts, but the results just haven't been there for Gordon in recent years. In the last four seasons, the four-time champion hasn't finished higher than eighth in the standings.
So why am I picking Gordon to take the checkered flag Sunday night in the 600? For one, Gordon has a keen sense of timing and history, and this will be the 20th anniversary of his first start in NASCAR's longest race. But more important, Gordon consistently had the fastest car on the track during long runs on April 13 at Texas Motor Speedway, which, like Charlotte, is a 1.5-mile track. Texas and Charlotte have similar characteristics and -- don't forget -- the race in Fort Worth ended under the lights, just like Sunday's event will.
So Gordon, it says here, will win his first race of 2013 Sunday night, recalling those halcyon days of the Wonder Boy. Here are four other drivers to watch when the green flag drops:
1. Jimmie Johnson
No driver in NASCAR today is better at Charlotte than Johnson, who won the All-Star race a week ago. In 23 starts at the 1.5-mile track (not including exhibition All-Star events), Johnson has six wins, three poles, NASCAR's best driver rating of 111.7 and the highest average green flag speed of 176.653. In other words, if a driver sees Johnson approaching in the rear-view mirror, he or she should worry.
Johnson, the five-time Cup champion, is running away with the regular season points title. He has a 44-point lead over Carl Edwards. This means, basically, that Johnson could sit out a race and likely still retain his place atop the standings. This means Johnson and the No. 48 team can afford to already start preparing for the Chase, which is a downright scary thought for the rest of the garage.
2. Kyle Busch
Currently eighth in the standings, Busch won that race at Texas Motor Speedway in April and he appeared to have the fastest car in the field for the majority of the All-Star event at Charlotte.
Busch has never won at Charlotte in 18 career starts, but look at his laps led record in the 600: in 2008 he paced the field 61 times; in '09 he led 173 laps; in '10 it was 36 laps; and in '11 and '12 he led 55 laps in each event. So look for Busch to bolt to the front early and be in contention to win his third race of 2013.
3. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth could easily be sitting on four straight victories right now. After winning at Kansas on April 21, he started on the pole at Richmond then led the most laps (140) before finishing seventh. The following week at Talladega he clearly had the car to beat, leading the most laps (142), but lost the draft late and wound up eighth. Then, two weeks ago at Darlington, he took the checkered flag.
So Kenseth is the hottest driver in the series right now. He won his first start in the 600 back in 2000, but since then has been shut out of Victory Lane on Memorial Day weekend. But it would surprise no one in the garage if that drought ended Sunday night.
4. Denny Hamlin
After missing four races with a back injury, Hamlin fell from fourth to 31st in the standings. His Chase hopes appeared dashed. But two weekends ago at Darlington, in his first fulltime race since March 24, Hamlin finished second and climbed five spots in the standings to 26th. Suddenly, it appears that Hamlin has a real chance to qualify for the playoffs as a wildcard.
To do so, he'll need to be in the top 20 in points (which appears eminently achievable) and he'll probably need to win two of the remaining 15 races. He should have a good shot at the checkers Sunday night.
Hamlin finished second in last year's 600 behind Kasey Kahne. But Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, came in third in that race. So Hamlin and Busch should work together nicely this weekend.
This race is likely going to play out as a battle between the Gibbs organization and Hendrick -- a microcosm of the season. For one night, I like Hendrick and the reappearance of some old Wonder Boy magic.