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It's time for Jeff Gordon to make his move...or be left in the ditch

  Hey, is it time for NASCAR to get serious about pit road safety? Why are all these guys out in the middle of pit road? No wonder drivers keep running over them. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   KANSAS CITY, Kansas
   Okay, dude. Time to show us what you've got.
   Jeff Gordon, that is.
   My pick to win the championship?
   He was my pick to win the championship.
   Two weeks ago.
   Looked hot.
   Looked confident.
   Had his act together, he and crew chief Steve Letarte.
   What happened?
   Pit road at Loudon.
   Pit road at Dover.
   Pit road?
   That should be easy for these guys.
   Strong car at Loudon. Strong car at Dover.
   Wound up 15th at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and struggled to a sixth at Dover.
   Now he's 122 points down to teammate Jimmie Johnson, with six other men also head of him in the NASCAR chase standings.
   Gordon won here in 2001. Gordon won here in 2002.
   Fourth last year; fifth in '07.
   Not bad, really. If this were a 36-race title race.
   But it's a 10-race shootout, and Gordon has to start whipping these guys.
   Give Jimmie Johnson a 100-point-plus lead down the season stretch, and you're asking for trouble.
   Yeah, yeah, Mark Martin says wait till the last four races – Talladega, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead – before making any judgments.
   And Talladega – ask Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards about championship hopes being dashed – can be a graveyard. As can Phoenix.
   But when Jimmie Johnson looks this good, and Mark Martin – five wins now, including a first and second the last two weeks – well, Gordon better get cracking.  


  If Jeff Gordon is going to make a run for this championship, he needs to make something happen. And soon. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Gordon does seem to have a good touch, finally, with the car-of-tomorrow on these mid-sized tracks, these 1-1/2-milers and two-milers. And there are five of them in the chase: Kansas, California, Charlotte, Texas and Homestead-Miami.
   But that's all the more pressure.
   And you know who won here last fall – Jimmie.
   "I've been really excited about the 1-1/2-miles in the chase…I feel like that's something we have really done a great job with improving from last season…and I feel that's where this championship can really get turned around for us," Gordon says.
   "We haven't had the best start, especially compared to our teammates.  But Dover was certainly a good performance.
    "We've been competitive, we've been consistent. But when the first two (chase races) don't go the way you'd like them to, and then your teammates are up there winning the first two races, it's very frustrating. 
    "It's frustrating we are not living up to our potential.
    "But at the same time, we are only two races in. Eight races-- a lot is left to happen."
    However Gordon is also a realist: "If those guys continue the way they are, we have got to win to gain points on them…and that's certainly a lot to ask for. 
    "But in my opinion it's still do-able. 
    "The nice thing is when your teammates are running that good, you have all the data and information at your fingertips to pull from."

  Steve Letarte: he's got the cars handling to Jeff's liking...but is the crew letting Gordon down? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

However for Gordon it's not the car, it's the execution that's failing him.
   Gordon knows that: "We were second or third-place car at Dover.  Jimmie was by far the best, and won. 
    "So you have got to get your absolute best. And we haven't done that the first two races."
    Gordon insists he hasn't heard the fat lady warming up. "There's going to be a lot more drama over these next eight," he says optimistically.
   "But you really have to be in the top three. That's where we have got to put ourselves."
   At least it's all in the family.
   Nobody else, really, honestly, probably has that great a shot.
   Yes, Denny Hamlin can get hot. He was great last fall. But he's been inconsistent, as he showed at Dover.
   And, yes, Juan Pablo Montoya is fast and hot and feisty, and may be the spoiler. But he's never been in this position before….
   And Gordon hasn't won a chase title. In fact the last of his four came in 2001.
   "The chase has changed things," he concedes. "This format doesn't suit my style quite as well as the old one.
   "But I'm as hungry and as eager as I've ever been."
    Is that going to be enough?
    Regardless, Gordon says Letarte is his man, for better or worse. And he thinks Letarte, just turned 300, has risen to the challenge this season.    
    "I love what he brings to the team," Gordon says. "He's very smart.
   "Now there's going to be criticism….but when you go into Texas (long-time bad track for Gordon) like we did earlier in the year, and we lead the points, and everybody praises him and says how amazing he is….
    "Then you get into the chase and things don't go our way, and it's easy to say 'Oh, well, this isn't the right combination, or 'It's this,' and everybody points fingers.  But that doesn't happen within the organization. And that's why we still have a shot at this championship."
    Sizing up the stretch, Gordon points to next week's stop at California's Auto Club Speedway -- "a track earlier in the year where I felt like we let one slip away.
    "Martinsville (later this month) is a great track for us…but we have been getting beat by Jimmie. So we have got to make some improvements.
   "Talladega is a great track for us."
   Especially now, without the Junior factor.
   But what really makes Gordon positive about the coming weeks is his breakthrough victory in the spring at Texas: "I can't wait to get back there. The win totally changed our attitude about Texas."
    However from there on, well, Phoenix and Homestead are not home run tracks for Gordon, so he needs to be firmly in command coming out of Texas.
   "We have been really good at Homestead -- not a winning car but top-five…and maybe we can make that into a winning car," he says.
   "The only track we have to make big gains on is Phoenix."
    Yet if there is one driving factor for Gordon this fall, it's 2007 – that's the year he should clearly have won that fifth title. He dominated the regular season, had a great start to the chase, led coming out of Talladega even….and then Johnson ripped off four straight – Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas and Phoenix -- to win going away.
   For Gordon, that was a crusher. In those four Johnson wins, Gordon finished third, seventh, seventh and 10th. And wound up losing the title, that under the long-time scoring system he would have easily won.
   It was that 2007 chase that led to some serious questions being raised about the 10-race chase, and its 'fairness.'
   This fall there are again questions about the chase format….but because of TV ratings. The chase is simply not proving to be an attractive TV package, sorry.
   Maybe Jeff Gordon can change that.
  Maybe he can't.

  No, Ingrid and Ella Sophia haven't taken the edge off Jeff Gordon's game...but maybe his team needs to step up its game (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


How's Jeff's back, Mike? It

How's Jeff's back, Mike? It was the hot story earlier in the year, but not much has been mentioned of it as of late. That may be a good thing for Jeff, or it might just be he, and everyone else, got tired of talking about it. Those injuries usually don't get any better until the offseason, so that's why I was wondering.

we pestered him so much about

we pestered him so much about it a couple of weeks ago that he's clammed up on it....all i know is it's not going to get any better, from what medical reviews i have seen.

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