By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
FORT WORTH, Texas -- He has taken more hits over the last few years than Muhammad Ali. Critics suggested he had lost his edge, that his motivation and inspiration had gone on a permanent vacation, and even blatantly claimed he was over the hill as a race car driver.
But Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, Jeff Gordon struck back fast and furious.
"I laid down some incredible laps," Gordon said. "These guys tightened the car up and it just flew."
In a flashback to the glory years when he won four Sprint Cup championships, Gordon refused to be denied. He shook off a late race challenge by teammate and eventual race runner-up Jimmie Johnson to win the Samsung 500.
"I know Jeff Gordon fans are celebrating with us leading the points and things like that, but this takes it over the top," Gordon said. "I'm sure there were some people that may not have been Jeff Gordon fans that wanted to see us win, but there were others out there who I'm sure were loving it that we weren't winning."
That's all over now as Gordon, who increased his points lead over Johnson to 162 points, finally conquered the track that has baffled him the most in his racing career. In the process, he earned the third-largest payday in Sprint Cup racing, a TMS-record payout of $541,874.
But this victory was more than just Gordon's 82nd career Cup win -- much more.
Statistically, it was his first win since October 2007, snapping a 47-race winless streak, the longest of his Cup career.
He broke a 17-race jinx by finally winning for the first time at TMS. Gordon has won at every track on the current Cup schedule with the exception of Homestead-Miami Speedway.
He celebrated by doing a backward victory lap, with the checkered flag dangling out of his window for the first time since he was a budding eight-year-old, quarter-midget racer.
But most important, Sunday's win was more than just crossing the start-finish line first. Rather, it was vindication that Gordon still has the intangible "it," that he isn't washed up or over the hill, and that we're likely to see him back in victory lane on other occasions this season.
"We just never lost sight or gave up," Gordon said. "Honestly, I think it inspired us, to go through that. It made us angry. We know we're better than that.
"This whole year has just been like that since Daytona. You see a different look in the guy's eyes and a different look in their effort. They have a bounce in their step. ... This is probably the best place we possibly could have won."
Ergo, as they say in New York, where he now lives, start spreading the news: Gordon is back and in a big way.
"It was like winning for the first time, the excitement and the emotions," Gordon said. "It's been a long streak, lots of ups and downs, not just here at Texas. I knew we were going to get one eventually. I felt we had some missed opportunities last year, that we could have won. That just keeps you driving hard and pushing forward."
Gordon isn't stupid. A rabid fan of the Internet, he has read countless stories and blogs written about him over the last couple of years. While he might not have been happy with some of those things, they did have a certain veracity about them, Gordon conceded.
"I thought about it a couple times," he said. "The facts are the facts. We had opportunities and we didn't win. Sometimes it was my fault, sometimes it was other circumstances. It doesn't surprise me that was written, and it's OK, and it's our job as a team to come together and prove that wrong."
And the only way to prove negative reports wrong is by winning the way he did Sunday, when he led nearly a third of the race.
"You're going to go through ups and downs (in your career)," Gordon said. "We've gone from having some of the best seasons in this sport to having some tough moments. When you have the high expectations that this team has and go through what we've gone through with all the wins, and to hear it every day, 'When are you going to win?' -- when you go through it long enough, you feel like you haven't won a race ever."
While the criticism exacerbated the frustration, it also kept Gordon, crew chief Steve Letarte and the entire No. 24 team focused on the idea that sooner or later their luck would turn.
It's just that the breakthrough took a lot longer than anyone anticipated.
"It was motivation," Gordon said. "It really makes you question how bad you really want it, how hard are you willing to work to get back to victory lane, how hard do you want to drive. Then being a new dad throws a whole new twist into it.
"I realized through last year that I didn't want to be just somebody driving around. I didn't want to be somebody that never won again. ... I believe we're just getting there and that we can get better."
Sunday, Gordon wasn't just better, he was the best. After nearly a year and a half, he finally found his way back to victory lane.
"And there's guys that'll point you there if you forget how to get there," he said, laughing.
But the long, arduous road that he endured getting back to victory lane is one large lesson Gordon will never forget.
"It's just like getting that first win out of the way -- every season you're looking for that first win," Gordon said. "You can get it off your back and breathe. We've been doing that for 47 races now. This is a huge relief and it's very exciting. If we can win at Texas, I feel we can win everywhere."
That's the last thing the naysayers wanted to hear. They reveled in Gordon's frustration, enjoying the fact that as each passing race went by, victory lane had also passed him by.
So what are they going to have to talk or write about now? Maybe now it'll be something like, "Geez, isn't Gordon ever going to lose again?"