Had a few things occurred differently, Jeff Gordon could well have completed this past season with a handful of race victories and a legitimate shot at his first series title in nearly a decade. Instead, a strong start gave way to a frustrating finish that heralded sweeping changes to the four-time champion's program for next year.
A ninth-place result in the final standings couldn't have been what Gordon envisioned after the first third of the season, a span that saw him in the mix to win several races. He was sitting as high as second in points as late as two races before the start of the Chase. And yet something always seemed to be missing for Gordon, whether it was that late-race strength he needed to return to Victory Lane, or the year-end consistency he needed to contend for the title. The final result was his lowest final points position since he missed the Chase in 2005, and his second winless season in three years.
With good reason. The first few weeks of the 2010 campaign especially were filled with opportunities that Gordon and his No. 24 team let get away. There was Las Vegas the third week of the season, where Gordon led 219 laps but finished third after a late two-tire stop backfired. There was Martinsville three weeks later, where he led 92 laps but got bumped from the lead by Matt Kenseth with two remaining and finished third. There was Phoenix the next week, where he was up front on the final restart but finished second after being passed by Ryan Newman.
There were others, too -- Richmond, where he led 144 laps but finished second after Kyle Busch passed him on the final restart; Darlington, where he led 110 but settled for third after he had to abort a late pit stop due to traffic; Chicagoland, where he led 47 but placed third because he didn't have enough for eventual winner David Reutimann in the end.
He had chances in all of them, plus a few others. He recorded victories in none of them. Gordon, who now has won just once in his past 113 starts in NASCAR's top series, knows they were opportunities he led slip away. "Looking back at it, without getting a win this year, they were races I feel kind of devastated by -- that we were that good, that close, and didn't get the wins," he said. "... When an opportunity is there, you have to capitalize on it, and we didn't this year."
If he could do one thing over again? "The restart at Phoenix," he said, without hesitation. "If I could have that restart back at Phoenix, oh man, I think we could re-run that race five times and I'd get five more wins. I just totally made a total mistake on the restart and it cost me big-time. And I might have chosen a different lane, too. I chose the outside lane, and looking back on it, maybe I should have chosen the inside."
Although he stuck close to the points lead through early fall, late in the year his No. 24 car just wasn't the same. He managed only four top-10 finishes in the season's final 13 events, had his pit crew swapped for Jimmie Johnson's to bolster his teammate's effort late in the championship hunt, and after the season was teamed with a new crew chief. After five years with Steve Letarte, Gordon now begins work with Alan Gustafson, who had been calling the shots for Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin.
Gordon said during Champion's Week that he already had been talking with Gustafson, had respected him for a long time, and that he was eager to begin testing with his new crew chief. Now, Gordon hopes that his part in the sweeping Hendrick reorganization -- three drivers, everyone but five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, were paired with new crew chiefs -- will help him find the missing pieces he lacked this past year, and win races and seriously contend for championships once again.
"It's not enough to just win a championship," Gordon said. "To stay ahead of the competition, to move forward, you have to make some bold, risky moves. This is one of those times that is going to separate us from the competition."