Gordon's fate may be on the line at Pocono
Jun 9, 2012
Sunday's Pocono 400 will not just be a shorter event on a new surface. Rather, the first of two races within a month at the Pennsylvania track could start drawing a demarcation line that will be all but finished in the early August return there.
I'm talking, of course, about the potential remaining opportunities for drivers to make a final run to qualify for the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup. Starting with Sunday's race, there are only 13 more chances for drivers to begin making a move towards becoming one of the 12 Chase finalists.
And perhaps the driver with the most to gain – or lose – Sunday is Jeff Gordon, currently tied for 21st place in the standings and in the midst of his worst season since making his Sprint Cup debut in 1992.
That's right, the man who owns four Cup championships is in some serious trouble when it comes to potentially making the Chase this season.
"It’s just circumstances and things that have gotten us in this situation and not getting the results that relate to the way we have performed this year," Gordon said Friday in his weekly media session. "I mean that’s racing. That happens, it’s unfortunate the things that have happened to us this year.
"We just have to eliminate those mistakes and start producing. Start putting the results out there that we know we are capable of. Unfortunately, at this point in the season those results are pretty much going to need to be wins."
Sure, Gordon has had two decent outings – 7th at Charlotte and 13th last Sunday at Dover – but he also realizes that by the time the circuit returns to Pocono for Round 2 on Aug. 5, it could be a very dismal birthday for Gordon, who will have turned 41 the day before.
What's more, with where he stands now, Gordon is in danger of missing the Chase for only the second time in what will be its ninth season.
While logic will tell you Gordon, who is the defending champ in Sunday's race, has an outstanding chance to make up some significant ground, given his track record at Pocono – 5 wins, 17 top-5s and 27 top-10s in 38 overall starts, along with a 10.2 average finishing position – you can throw all those numbers out the window.
A new track surface is one thing, but when a race that has been 500 miles in length ever since Pocono Raceway opened in 1971 is shortened to 400 miles, those two variables make Sunday's race seem as if it'll be a brand new event at a totally new track.
"Things have changed a lot with the repave," Gordon said. "Essentially it’s the same old Pocono but quite a bit different. … I think that while the track is smooth and has a lot of grip and is a lot faster it still has Pocono characteristics which I’m really glad, because I love this track.
"It’s going to be nice to be less than 500 miles, especially this weekend because the RPM that we are turning, the amount of shifting that we are doing, the pace that we are running, it would be hard to pull 500 miles out of it at that kind of speed. I think 400 miles is going to make for a little bit more entertaining race as well as hopefully more of us get to the finish."
While Gordon's record at Pocono has no bearing on what happens Sunday, his bid to make the Chase, however, does. Given how far he back he is in the standings right now, while he could miraculously still make the Chase mathematically, the reality is more like he'll have to win two of the next 13 races to qualify for NASCAR's playoffs.
Unfortunately, even two wins in the next 13 may not be enough to secure the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet a place in the Chase.
And on the flip side, if Gordon doesn't make the Chase, he's staring at the potential of having his worst-ever season finish.
Hard as it may seem to believe, in his 19 full-time seasons on the Cup circuit, Gordon has finished outside the top 10 just twice, and his worst finish was 14th in his rookie campaign of 1993.
Many observers and critics are saying that perhaps Gordon just doesn't have it anymore as a driver.
Perhaps, but an argument can also be made that of the nearly 40-plus full-time drivers in the Cup series, no one has had worse overall luck in the first 13 races of 2012 than Gordon. He's had one mechanical issue after another, pit crew foibles, been in the wrong place at the wrong time, has wrecked and has endured pretty much every malady known to racing.
But as bad as he was in the first 13 races, the last two finishes at Charlotte and Dover give a hint of optimism that Gordon could go from bad to outstanding in the next 13 races, make the Chase easily – and even potentially win his fifth career Cup title (and first since 2001).
"Other than the flat tires at Darlington, I feel like most of what’s happened to us this year has been attributed to things that you can pinpoint to what caused it," Gordon said. "We have had engine failures this year, we have had a loose wheel like last week, we have had a wreck like at Martinsville or at Bristol."
So you can see why Sunday's race is so pivotal. Sure, it's just one of 36 races on the regular season schedule, but another bad finish is the last thing Gordon and his Chase chances need. In an ironic twist, not only is Gordon the reigning champ of this race, it also marks the last time he took the checkered flag.
He remembers last year's triumph as if it was yesterday.
"The last win that you have is always the one that carries you to the next one," Gordon said. "You never know when that next one may or may not come. But when you have experienced victory as much as I have, you know that is such a sweet feeling."
Gordon took the first step towards a mid-season surge with a 12th-place qualifying effort Saturday at Pocono. Still, he has a lot more steps yet to go before he can make a concerted run towards the Chase.
A win Sunday would be a big help, as there are only three other drivers currently outside the top 10 who have an edge in the battle for the two wildcard spots for the Chase: Brad Keselowski, who seemingly has a spot locked up already with two wins thus far, as well as Ryan Newman and Gordon's new Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Kasey Kahne, who both have one win each.
Gordon would love to join that group, because it's a heck of a lot better than the group he's in right now.