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Rick Hendrick's men aim at No. 200: Kasey Kahne on Martinsville pole, Jeff Gordon ready to win again, Jimmie Johnson favorite...and Dale Jr.

 Kasey Kahne, on the Martinsville pole, and hoping to reverse a run of bad luck (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


  Jeff Gordon looks like a man on the verge of really getting ticked off.
  The season hasn't quite gone like he'd hoped. That flipping crash in the Daytona 500 didn't help things.
  And he comes into Sunday's Goody's 500 mired so deep in the points -- 25th , five races in -- that others might panic.

  He crashed at Daytona, in the Shootout, and blew an engine in the 500 -- 40th.
  He got some good luck at Phoenix, 8th.
  He did so-so at Las Vegas, 12th.
  And after that 35th at Bristol and 26th at California, well, the kid is looking fired up.
  And here this weekend he's got a great 'stopper.' This track has long been a good one for him, and he has been so fast in practice that he could well be the man to score team owner Rick Hendrick's 200th NASCAR victory.
   Is Martinsville Win Number Eight in the cards?
   Well, maybe...if amazing Tony Stewart cools off.
   Stewart, who runs very well here too, has won seven of the NASCAR tour's last 15 races, a stunning stretch.
   "What Tony is doing is incredible...especially this day and age, with this race car on different types of tracks," Gordon says.


Jeff Gordon (R) and crew chief Alan Gustafson (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


  Both Gordon and Stewart turn 41 this season, and that's usually when a driver's edge starts to dull.
   So Stewart's charge could spark Gordon.
   "It really does show where that team is, where his commitment is," Gordon says. "When you get into that zone -- if I can recall 1998 (one of Gordon's finest years) -- you are going to the race track with a different mindset. You are going to win.  You are going there knowing you've got the team, the people, the cars that can win any weekend, on any track.
    "It puts you at a different level. 
    "It allows you to just focus on the important aspects; not to question things, not to doubt things, just to deal with the details."

     Gordon has been so fast here that he concedes "it actually made me a little bit nervous, because this track changes a lot with rubber. 
    "When we started practice (this is an impound race, with no practice after Saturday morning qualifying), we were in total dominant form. As rubber got laid down, the competition gap closed a little."


Brad Keselowski (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


     His closest rivals in practice were Kurt Busch, whose first season with car owner James Finch has been rocky, and Brad Keselowski, the fast-rising star for Roger Penske.
    Gordon's season so far:
    "At Phoenix we qualified terrible; we ran mediocre, and we finished wherever we finished. 
    "At Vegas we qualified badly; we didn't run well; we finished 12th .
    "Bristol, we were running good; we know what happened there. 
     "Daytona, we were running good; we know what happened there. 
     "Last week (at California), that was self-inflicted."

    Sunday's 500-lapper is typically filled with frustrations and anger. Can Gordon keep an even temper?
    "We come here with a lot of confidence," Gordon says. "Even though we haven't won here as much lately (since he swept both 500s in 2005), we still led a lot of laps and at times dominated.
    "We see a lot of cautions at the end of this race.  We seem to have a car that works really good on long runs; maybe that is a little of my style. We are trying to compromise that this weekend; our car is good on short runs.
    "We haven't been great the first five or six laps, but we have been really good on the long runs (the past several years). We have been so strong here in the first half of the race, but it seems like as rubber gets laid down you run shorter runs, and that is where the race is won.
   "That is where we have come up a little short in the last several races.
    "But you can work on that, and all of a sudden you go long runs all the way to the end and there are no cautions."

     And Gordon points out the 'new' playoff dynamic -- that winning races means more than just racking up points.
    "We just have to focus on winning races right now," he says. "We can't focus on trying to be in the top-10 in points. 
    "I don't think we are that far away from winning races, I will be honest. We just have to eliminate the mistakes.
    "I'm really looking forward to getting things turned around...and I think we have some great tracks to be able to do that."

     The week ahead may appear to be an off week, but Goodyear has testing planned on Michigan International Speedway's new asphalt, and Gordon  is one of the men doing the test.
     Considering how smooth the sport's newest repave jobs have been, Gordon says this test could give him an edge for June 17th 400 at the Detroit-area track.
    "When a repave is smooth, you get to understand the loads, the grip levels, and what the track needs," Gordon says.
    "We don't know what to expect at Michigan.  These days your biggest fear is they have to put such a rock-hard tire on the car, because of the speeds and grip levels and the abuse that it puts on the tire, that it makes not to be a very fun test.  I'm hoping that is not the case this time."


      Denny Hamlin: the man to beat Sunday? Probably so. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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