Jeff Gordon hasn't had the best start to his Cup season, but is adjusting to keep himself in race for the Chase. (Getty Images)
Gordon still hunting for Chase
Driver of the No. 24 trying to turn tides in an up and down Cup season so far
By Viv Bernstein, Special to
May 05, 2012 4:04 PM, EDT
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Whatever frustration level is bubbling inside Jeff Gordon these days is mostly hidden from view. He knows better than to let it show publicly.
"We are still in [the race for the Chase] because until we don't win any races or until we are not in the top 10 when it comes to [the first Chase race in] Chicago, we still have a shot at it."
-- JEFF GORDON
As Gordon said on Friday before practice at Talladega Superspeedway, "When you have the year that we are having you can only say so much. It's one of those things where I don't want my team to get down on the way things are going."
Still, after a dispiriting 23rd-place finish at Richmond (a lap behind race winner Kyle Busch), Gordon let down his guard just long enough to tweet, "Bummer of a race Saturday night for our team. Unfortunately, been having too many of those this year."
That's why Gordon finds himself in 17th place in the standings going into Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway. Although he was 17th after 10 races last season before rallying to make the Chase and finish eighth, Gordon was a mere 23 points behind Matt Kenseth for that 10th spot.
The hole is much deeper this time.
Gordon now finds himself 57 points behind Ryan Newman and the critical 10th place that would lock him into the Chase field after 26 races. If he can't dig out, Gordon will finish outside the top 10 in points for only the second time since his rookie season -- he was 11th in 2005.
There is no one reason for the struggles. Gordon's engine blew during the Daytona 500 and he finished 40th. He rebounded to finish eighth at Phoenix a week later, but has just one top-10 finish since that race -- a fourth-place finish at Texas. Along the way, there was a 35th-place finish at Bristol, where a bump from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. cost Gordon a strong finish. A pair of miscues on pit road and a rain-shortened race left Gordon 26th at Auto Club Speedway a week later.
Gordon was racing for the victory at Martinsville, but was collected in a late-race wreck with Clint Bowyer and finished 14th instead.
Aside from Martinsville, when Gordon led 329 laps, he has led just 10 laps in the other eight races combined. He has finished on the lead lap just three times so far.
"It's not really exactly performance,'' teammate Jimmie Johnson said when asked if he has seen Gordon's frustration. "I think it is more in the results category.
"At the end of the day when the checkered falls they haven't been in a position they were running and have had a lot of things take place. That is frustrating for anyone. You go along and tell yourself, 'Well, at least we are running well.' But that lasts for a short period of time.''
Gordon still has hope. After all, under the old points system he probably would be too far back by now to make a run at a title. The Chase format at least gives him a chance.
"At this point, we are not out of it,'' he said, "We are still in it because until we don't win any races or until we are not in the top 10 when it comes to [the first Chase race in] Chicago, we still have a shot at it."
Nevertheless, crew chief Alan Gustafson acknowledges he will have to adjust strategy because of the team's position and push more for wins. Gordon likely needs one or two victories to qualify for the Chase if he is outside the top 10. The final two spots in the field are based on wins.
"The finishes we've got and where we are in points, I'm not happy with that,'' Gustafson said. "Even if you can make the argument some of those things were out of our control, which I agree with, it still puts you in a worse position in general.
"So we have to dig out of that. It seems like we can't get rolling in doing that, it just seems like step forward, step back. We just need to start putting together some races where we start getting out of the hole."
And, despite all that has happened so far, it's hard to imagine Gordon failing to pull it off. Which is why that annual spot in the Chase field is still his to lose.
"This early in the season, I don't know if anyone looks too hard at other guys and starts looking for weaknesses and things,'' Carl Edwards said. "Once you get closer to the Chase you definitely do. It is hard right now because you look out there at the lay of the land and where people are and a guy that is 15th or 16th in the points, even in the 25th or 26th race can still make it on the wild card and be a factor. I think what is different now in our sport is you have to give everyone that respect. You cannot underestimate anyone that could be in the Chase, because the final 10 races a guy can surprise you like we saw last year.
"That is the long way of saying I would never write Jeff Gordon off."