One Or Done

24490Jpg
A year ago, Jeff Gordon led the point standings and teammate Jimmie Johnson was second with 10 races remaining in the inaugural Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup.

Ultimately an unstoppable Kurt Busch was crowned champion, with Johnson and Gordon finishing second and third in the rankings, respectively.

Entering Saturday night's Chevy Rock & Roll 400, Gordon is 12th in the standings, 30 points behind tenth-ranked Jamie McMurray and one slim tick in arrears to No. 11 Ryan Newman. For a driver whose luck and talent have perennially had him perched near or atop the standings, Gordon's predicament is far outside his comfort box.

This is a guy who isn't used to backing into anything, be it a fire hydrant, the beams of his best friend's garage or NASCAR's victory lane. His only departure might come after turning 360-degree smoke-drenched donuts to the delight of his fans, picking up his trophy traveling sideways.

A four-time series champion, Gordon heads into Richmond by an unfamiliar route. While Johnson and four others have locked in spots in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup, Gordon needs to borrow a page from the playbook of rival Jeremy Mayfield, who earned his slot in the 2004 championship romp by pulling out all the stops. Mayfield, who can make the 2005 Chase Saturday by finishing 39th or better, clinched the right to contend last year by winning the whole shebang at Richmond.

Having sputtered since winning the season-opening Daytona 500, Gordon is of two minds when it comes to wrapping up the right to contend for a fifth championship.

"You're always optimistic that you (can) get into the Chase and maybe pull something together, (and) we certainly want to be in the Chase to give that effort," says Gordon. "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."

Make no mistake: As down as Gordon is on his performances this year, he is totally dedicated to giving the title chase his all. Should he wiggle his way into the Chase, he figures his slate is as clean as anyone's.

In addition to Johnson, points leader Stewart has a pass, as does second-ranked Greg Biffle, No. 4 Rusty Wallace and fifth-ranked Mark Martin. The eighth-ranked Carl Edwards will clinch a spot with a finish of 19th or better.

Which leaves open the slots of 2003 champion Matt Kenseth, who has climbed from 16th to ninth in the rankings in the last three races, and No. 10 Jamie McMurray, who has ricocheted in and out of the top 10 all season.

With four spots in the Chase up for grabs and No. 13 Elliott Sadler, No. 14 Dale Jarrett, No. 15 Kevin Harvick and No. 16 Joe Nemechek still mathematically eligible, why the focus on Gordon? Six words: Four-time NASCAR NEXTEL Cup champion. Three or four races ago, the absence from the Chase of NASCAR's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., also was on the tips of lips, but a 38th-place performance last week at California that dropped him to 18th in the standings put the kibosh on his chances.

While Gordon attempts to maintain his equilibrium - heck, he says sponsor DuPont is digging his questionable status because it's always in the news - his biggest champion is Dodge and Mayfield team owner Ray Evernham, who called the shots during three of Gordon's four titles. Gordon, offers Evernham, represents the definition of a driver who excels in the clutch.

"He's (Gordon) what I call a big money player; whenever there (is) a big challenge or big money on the line he would seem to step up," says Evernham. "He's in the same situation we were last year with Jeremy where we had to go (to Richmond) and lead the most laps and let the cards fall where they may. I think (Gordon) is capable of doing that. They've done it before. But no matter how good he is, they've still got to make sure they've got the car that can get it done."

In addition to Gordon, a two-time winner at Richmond (1996 and 2000) who placed third in this race last year, here is a brief look at the performance charts of the other drivers hoping to lock up a spot to challenge for the title beginning with the Sept. 18 Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway:

  • Mayfield: Has finished second (2003) and first (2004) in his last two Richmond races.
  • Busch: Has only one top-10 finish in nine career starts; was 17th there in May.
  • Edwards: Finished sixth in this race last year, but won the NASCAR Busch Series race in May.
  • Newman: Won this race in 2003; has four top-five finishes in seven starts.
  • Kenseth: Came from two laps down to win in 2002; in his last six starts finished 12th, sixth, first, seventh twice and fifth.
  • McMurray: Best finish in five starts is ninth.
  • Sadler: Top finish in 13 starts was seventh in May.
  • Jarrett: Has two victories (1997 and 1999), but last top-10 finish was fourth in 2001.
  • Harvick: Best finish in nine starts was second in 2001.
  • Nemechek: Top finish in 23 starts was a victory in May 2003.
  • Photos

    • From the Archives: Atlanta
    • From the Archives: Atlanta
    • From the Archives: Atlanta
    • From the Archives: Atlanta
    • From the Archives: Atlanta
    • From the Archives: Atlanta
    • From the Archives: Atlanta
    • From the Archives: Atlanta
    • From the Archives: Atlanta
    • From the Archives: Atlanta
    • From the Archives: Atlanta
    • Daytona 500 Champion's Breakfast
    • Daytona 500 Champion's Breakfast
    • Daytona 500 Champion's Breakfast
    • Daytona 500 Champion's Breakfast
    • Daytona 500 Champion's Breakfast
    • Daytona 500 Champion's Breakfast
    • Daytona 500 Champion's Breakfast
    • Daytona 500 Champion's Breakfast
    • Daytona 500 Champion's Breakfast
    • Daytona 500 Champion's Breakfast
    • Daytona 500 Champion's Breakfast
    • Daytona 500 Champion's Breakfast
    • Daytona 500 Champion's Breakfast
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500
    • Daytona 500

    Advertisement

  • © 2015 MRN. All Rights Reserved

    FacebookTwitterDiggDeliciousLinkedInGoogle BookmarksYahoo BookmarksLive (MSN)

    ISC Track Sites