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Jeff Gordon again leading the NASCAR pack

Auto RacingHighway and Road TransportationStock Car RacingTrack and FieldJeff GordonBowlingJimmie Johnson

Jeff Gordon has a birthday coming up Monday.

He will be 43 years old, but some of his peers in the NASCAR garage area talk about him with a respect that is generally reserved for someone of a different generation.

The platitudes some of them tossed out Friday when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series began the GoBowling.com 400 weekend at Pocono Raceway may have referred to some of the recent success the California native, Indiana transplant and current North Carolinian has been enjoying but undoubtedly also pointed to some of the humanitarian contributions he has made over the years.

Chad Knaus, the crew chief for Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jimmie Johnson, worked with Gordon for five of the early years of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career. He will celebrate his 43rd birthday one day after Gordon.

"Look, I'm a huge Jeff Gordon fan as everybody understands," he said. "Jeff is a great guy; he is a huge part of our sport, a great ambassador."

Matt Kenseth is less than a year younger than Gordon, has 59 fewer NSCS victories on his resume (31-90) and is not a teammate, but a rival running for Joe Gibbs Racing.

"A couple of years ago all the rumblings were about Jeff retiring and his back hurts and he's not running as good," Kenseth said. "Now he's … running up front every week and is on the front of everybody's mind for trying to win another championship."

Johnson, who is closest to Gordon in NSCS career wins (69-90) and has more NASCAR championships than he does (6-4), when asked about the impact of Gordon's recent Brickyard 400 win, said, "Twenty years later [than his first Brickyard win], the meaning behind that for him is massive … and on the professional side, he won at one of the most difficult tracks in a dominating fashion … giving him and that No. 24 team a ton of momentum rolling forward."

For the first time since 2007, Gordon is leading the NCSC point standings after the first 20 races of the season, and while the method for determining the champion is different now than it was then, the fact that he has had two wins, seven top-5 finishes and 14 top-10s to this point makes him more than a mere contender.

Gordon's Axalta Chevrolet will start fifth Sunday when the GoBowling.com 400 takes the green flag at 1:19 p.m. (ESPN), He turned a lap of 182.611 miles per hour in Friday's qualifying.

Only three times this season has he started higher than fifth, and this marks the 17th time in his career he has started among the top five at Pocono. He also was fifth when NASCAR came to Long Pond in June and he finished eighth behind winner Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The importance of the Brickyard win was not lost on Gordon, who has won only nine races since the 2007 season, in which he had six.

"It's been an amazing week; I'm feeling really good," he said. "The thing about our schedule is that it's every week. You head back to the race track and you've got to do it all over again."

The Indy win was the 90th of his career, and Gordon was asked if hitting that milestone makes him think about getting to 100.

"You can't think about 100 until you get to 99 the last time I checked," he said. "So, I'm pretty excited to be at 90 and I'm enjoying 90. I hope we can get to 91."

After winning at Indy, Gordon and the Hendrick team had a special celebration for the car owner's 65th birthday and the team's 30th anniversary. Maybe a birthday party for Gordon (and Knaus) would be in order with a GoBowling.com 400 win.

Gordon isn't thinking a lot about his own celebrity status in NASCAR, or in sports in general.

"I've kind of been out of that for the last several years," he said. "Maybe building respect among competitors and those that follow the sport because of the history that I have and the success I've had in the past, but it's been a while since we've won a big event [until the Brickyard].

"I think we all hope that our role in the sport is contributing to make the sport better. We don't want the sport to grow to new heights and we're sitting there at the bottom. We all want to contribute and be a part of it."

Junior speaks up: Earnhardt Jr. thinks his chances of reprising his June victory are good, while at the same time admitting "we were not the best car" in that race. He will start ninth Sunday. The driver of the National Guard Chevrolet said his car will have a unique look this week in honor of Michael Baker International, which supports the National Guard Youth Foundation. Junior also admitted that, "I don't know if I've got my priorities in order or not, but performing well on Sundays is No. 1 in my life. Nothing else in my life, no matter how good it can get, can make up for [that]."

Retired sports columnist Paul Reinhard is a freelance writer.

TRAFFIC REPORT

State police will put special traffic patterns into effect to help motorists attending the GoBowling.com 400 NASCAR race on Sunday at the Pocono Raceway in Long Pond.

Before the race, Route 115 from Interstate 80 to the raceway will be converted to two lanes and will be one-way southbound. This conversion will start approximately 8 a.m. and continue until all traffic has entered the track grounds.

After the race, Route 115 from the raceway to Interstate 80 will be converted to two lanes and will be one-way northbound, until the raceway parking lots are cleared. This conversion will begin with 25 laps remaining in the race.

Stoney Hollow Road has been designated a no-parking and tow-away zone from Long Pond Road to the Interstate 80 overpass. Any vehicle in violation will be removed at the owner's expense.

After the race, the Interstate 80 eastbound off-ramp at the Blakeslee exit (Exit 284) will be closed to traffic.

Traffic coming south to the race on Route 115 will be required to enter specific parking areas. Motorists should take note of signs posted along Route 115 and travel in the appropriate traffic lanes for their desired parking area.

• Likewise, outbound traffic traveling north will face similar signs with lane restrictions for Interstate 80 and Route 115 access.

State police say motorists should expect higher traffic volume and possible delays not only on Route 115 and Interstate 80, but also on Routes 209, 940 and 903. Those who normally travel through the area on Route 115 should consider using Interstate 80, Route 33, Route 209, and the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike as alternate routes.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Auto RacingHighway and Road TransportationStock Car RacingTrack and FieldJeff GordonBowlingJimmie Johnson
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