Against The Wall

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Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Well, not fallen exactly, more like a stumble. You get the picture.

After 12 years of being the man to beat, Jeff Gordon finds himself on the vulnerable side of the Chase line, and there's only 400 laps left to make it to the other. That's a rough row to hoe for a driver with four big old Winston Cup trophies sitting in the trophy room and 74 career victories.

Being a four-time series champion, Gordon does know when he's in the running for a title. As of right now, today, he's not. Pure and simple, he's not been good enough to be in contention, and he said Sunday night that his performance and that of his team, "sucked."

So, given that our culture these days is more interested in placing blame than actually fixing the problem, what does Gordon point to for his erratic performance this year? Who bears the brunt of the blame?

"We all do," he said. "It's all of our responsibility. As a driver, my responsibility is to give information to the team about the car and what it's doing, how to make it better, how to start the race, you know, the way we should. That responsibility is also on Robbie and the guys working on the cars, all of our engineers and everybody that we gather information from. You know, there's no way to point fingers at any one person. It's a group effort whether you win the race or finish dead last. It's been frustrating, no doubt about it."

Whether he makes the Chase or not-he's racing for 10th now and has been for several weeks-things will likely change for Gordon and the 24 team next year. There's a question as to whether crew chief Robbie Loomis will be back for 2006.

"Well, we talked before this season even started about Robbie's future, what he wanted to do," Gordon said. "If it's up to me, yeah, I'd love to have him as my crew chief. Robbie, you know, with his mom and some of the illnesses she's gone through, he's trying to decide right now what his plans are. It has nothing to do with our performance this year.

"I believe a hundred percent in Robbie Loomis and his abilities," Gordon said. "When we're on, there's nobody better. Because of our lack of performance this year, I really don't think Robbie should be put to blame for that. It has nothing to do with whether he's my crew chief next year or not. You know, it has nothing to do with the performance that we've had this year."

In reading that last statement, count the number of "it has nothing to do with our performance this year" references. Whether cynicism has finally completely overtaken me or whether I'm reading this right, I believe that Loomis will not be on the box next year, and while it might not be based solely on performance, you can bet performance will be a reason that he's not. That's just a feeling, mind you.

Look at the performance of both the 5 and the 25 this season. The 48 has been solid too. What's the common denominator, not counting the team they drive for? Young crew chiefs. Lance McGrew, Chad Knaus and Alan Gustafson are all young, all have been brought up in the Hendrick model, and all have some engineering background.

All of this is not to say that Robbie Loomis is over the hill, out of his league or any such similar sentiment. He's not. He's the same crew chief that led Gordon to a series championship in 2001, and he's the same guy who was sitting on top of the box at Daytona, Martinsville and Talladega, when Gordon won.

But it might be time for the 24 team to retool, if for no other reason than to find out why the car qualifies so well and runs so poorly when the green flag waves. Not since Talladega has Gordon had the car to beat, and there, he was so much faster than everyone else it was almost boring.

Even if he does make the Chase, do you think he'll have a realistic shot at winning it? He hasn't been competitive overall this season, and he and his team are going to recover enough to battle Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle and the rest of the Chasers even up?

"You know, you're always going to be optimistic that you get in the Chase and maybe things start to go your way, you pull something together," Gordon said. "So we certainly want to be in the Chase to give that effort and, you know, take that chance. But the way we've been this year, honestly if we perform this weekend like we have the last few, we don't belong in the Chase anyway. You know, all we're going to do is go out there and finish 10th in the points and go on the stage. It would be a disappointing year no matter what.

"Right now the way I look at it is starting this weekend through the end of the season, it's all about us getting our issues sorted out on the tracks that we haven't run good at, and then when we do have good runs, we've got to make sure we finish out the run the way -- if we're competitive, we need to finish competitively. We just haven't shown that. We need to get some spark in things really for next year regardless of where we end up this weekend."

If he doesn't make the Chase, it's not the end of the world. It'll be close for the legions of JG fans, but not the end of the world. It also might be the best thing for the 24 and its driver.

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