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Number Five?

  Jeff Gordon: under the radar, but probably not much longer (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Remember Jeff Gordon's 'Drive for Five?'
   Well, this may finally be the year.
   Remember Jeff Gordon's 2007?
   He blew everyone away in the regular season, even teammate Jimmie Johnson.
   Gordon came out of the Richmond playoff cut with more than a 300-point lead on second-place Tony Stewart, and Johnson was more than 400 points behind Gordon. Then in the chase he won Talladega and Charlotte, and midway through the playoffs Gordon held a 68-point lead over Johnson (actually under the old scoring system, which counted all the races equally, Gordon would have had a 500-point lead over Johnson and even more over the rest of the title challengers).
    And then Johnson ripped off four straight wins, taking command, and going on to win the title, by 77 points over Gordon.
    Now all that, for Gordon, was heartbreaking. It was his season – with six wins, a sparkling 5.3 average finish in the chase, 30 top-10s over the year…but it was Johnson's chase.
    Fast forward.
    So far this has been Tony Stewart's season.
    Rival Kyle Busch, one of the most dangerous men in the sport, didn't make the playoffs.
    Matt Kenseth, for the first time, didn't make the chase, despite opening the year with wins at Daytona and California; teammates Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle are still winless.
    Johnson? Since pulling off that win at Indianapolis in late July, he's been ragged: only one top-10, and eighth at Bristol…and he ran out of gas in the final miles at Michigan, which turned a win into a 33rd place finish. Even before that, things were up-and-down.
   Gordon? Aside from that crash at Watkins Glen and a problem night at Bristol, he's been solid. In fact over the summer's 13 races, he has 10 top-10s.
   He's got rhythm.
   And he is Jeff Gordon, after all. A four-time champion. But not yet in the chase format, this 10-race sprint, with 12 men starting out virtually tied in points for the last three months of the season.
    The chase itself has been maligned; it isn't necessarily all that popular. It was created, in part, to battle the NFL in the fall, and to try to keep NBC as a NASCAR TV partner. And how well NASCAR has succeeded with the chase is debatable.
   Starting this part of the season in mid-September, up in New Hampshire, well, Loudon isn't LA or Vegas. (Of course by next year at this time Bruton Smith may well have rebuilt this entire speedway into a new design, some even predict a 1-1/2-mile track, like Texas or Las Vegas.)
   And, to be honest, if a team and driver don't have their act together by this point in the season, it's unlikely for anyone to rally dramatically in these next 10 weeks. What we've seen the first 26 weeks is probably pretty much what we'll see from here through Homestead – hence the sense that the title run itself will probably be fought among Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon, with Denny Hamlin perhaps the wild card.
   Hamlin, since winning last month at Pocono, has been top-10 every week, and last week's win at Richmond was a boost.
   Still, there is the sense that this chase may be Gordon's, when all is said and done.
   The chase, though sometimes criticized as 'artificial,' has created a different stretch strategy for title contenders.
   "I think it's the right thing to do for the sport…though as a competitor it took me a little while to adjust to," Gordon says.
   "But because it's such a drastic change (from NASCAR's long-standing title system), even if we win the championship this year, I don't think you can count it as five. I think you count it as one. And you count the others as four. It's separated.
    "To me the history has changed, and how you go about the championship, and who is crowned as the champion, is totally different. I think it's more challenging than it's ever been.
    "It's very competitive, and extremely exciting to see 12 guys going for it over 10 races.
     "I think it's where our sport needs to be…especially to compete with the other major sports."
     Gordon himself almost seems to be prepping himself for another year-long run as the sport's ambassador champion. He's finally conquered Texas, long a weak link for him; and this Sunday's 300 could offer a size-up of how Phoenix (Nov. 15th, the penultimate race) may go…and Phoenix has typically been key in the championship race.
   In career average finishes at the Arizona track, Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Gordon, in that order, have had the best runs.
     "I feel we're really strong, we've got a great team, and we've shown that throughout the year," Gordon says. "But the last couple of weeks we've really shown just how strong we are: We've led laps, we've competed strong, we've been great on pit road, I feel we've communicated well, and qualified pretty well.
    "I don't think there is anybody stronger than us at this point."
    Plus, the bull's eye is on teammate Jimmie Johnson's rear bumper, in his bid for a fourth straight title…and also on Tony Stewart's bumper, as the season-long tour leader.
    "I'm fine with the bull's eye not being on us," Gordon says, "because it allows us just to focus on doing our job.
    "But I also know that if we're going to win it, that bull's eye is going to have to be on us eventually."
     So what's the batting average it should take to win this title? Johnson's remarkable 5.0 back in '07 is still stunning.
    "One year it takes a 10th-place finishing average, the next time it takes a five," Gordon says. "You don't know.
    "Winning is more of a premium these days, because of the points gap between winning and second (typically 15 points, sometimes 20). In the past there wasn't that big of a gap, and you were fine with finishing second, third or fourth."
    However it's conceivable that the man who wins this year's title will not have to win any of the year's 36 events….which would be a little embarrassing.
    "You don't have to win any races to win the deal," Gordon points out. "You can finish second, third or fourth every weekend, and you will win the championship.
    "It is possible…but it is not very likely.
     "I think whoever wins the championship will win at least one race in the chase.
     "Talladega can throw everything out the window. Phoenix is a track we need to improve on; Dover is a track we need to improve on.
     "Last year I would have said that Texas is our Achilles Heel…and this year we won there, and I feel good about Texas.
      "I feel good about the 1-1/2-mile tracks in general.
     "And I feel good about here."


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