In any professional sport even the best athletes slip into unproductive periods, stretches of time when they do not perform as they once did. They do not meet expectations.
These episodes are called “slumps.”
I’m sure you are very much aware of the fact that in NASCAR many top drivers – shoot, make that all of them – have had their share of slumps.
It didn’t matter how talented the driver was or how much he had achieved. There were times when things just weren’t going right.
Even the iconic Dale Earnhardt, a seven-time Sprint Cup champion, had his spells of lackluster performances.
For example, in 1997 Earnhardt did not win a single race. The last time he went winless was in 1981.
“Now I know how those guys who don’t win really feel,” said Earnhardt crew member Will Lind at the time. “I don’t like it.”
This season there are a few drivers who haven’t reached their normal level of performance.
Carl Edwards comes to mind. Last season he lost the championship to Tony Stewart on a tiebreaker – the first time that’s happened in the history of the Chase.
Naturally, he was expected to be a contender in 2012. And he still may be. But as of now, Edwards is mired in a slump.
He hasn’t won a race and is in 12th place in the point standings. If the Chase began now, a winless Edwards wouldn’t be in it, even as a “wildcard” entry.
That’s because Brad Keselowski is 11th in points with two wins. Ryan Newman, in 13th place, and Kasey Kahne, who is 15th, have one victory each.
But there is another driver whose situation is much more dire – something most of us would never imagine to be the case.
Jeff Gordon has won four championships. The odds are very good he’s not going to get a fifth this year. His season has been, by his standards, horrific.
It has not been a slump. It has been a collapse.
Gordon is 21stin points with no wins and only three finishes among the top 10. The only way he can make the Chase and have any hope at all for another title is to win races – one victory will not do – and make the field as a “wildcard” entry.
The Chase begins after the 26th race of the season, at Richmond in September. Gordon has only 13 more chances to earn at least two victories – and he may need more.
Gordon is in his worst points position since 2005, when he wound up 11th. He did win four times, but he also failed to finish nine times.
The last time he was winless was in 2008. But he finished seventh in points with 13 runs among the top five and 19 among the top 10.
“I think we are capable of getting some wins before the Chase,” Gordon said. “I hope we get enough to get in the Chase.”
Gordon is correct when he says his team is capable. There have been some miscues this season, but, overall, his Hendrick Motorsports group has done well. It just does not have the results to show for it.
“We have a car that should be in the top 10 in points,” Gordon said. “That it isn’t has nothing to do with the way we have been running in the races, it is the way we have been finishing.”
Many finishes have been mediocre to bad because Gordon has suffered one misfortune after another. He has endured a string of incredibly bad luck.
He’s even joked about it a couple of times, as has his team owner Rick Hendrick, who once said: “Right now, I wouldn’t get on an airplane with Jeff.”
“There’s nothing you can do, no information from you teammates that can stop you from having a blown tire at Darlington, a cut tire at Bristol or a blown engine at Kansas,” Gordon said. “We are certainly running well enough to be in the top 10, we just have to continue to put together good finishes.”
Gordon has run very well recently. He finished seventh in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and was 13th at Dover, which would likely have been much higher if not for ill fortune – again.
“I had one of the best cars I’ve ever had in the 600,” Gordon said. “Unfortunately, we had to pass 50 cars just to get to seventh place because we got caught out on a green flag stop. That put us way behind.”
Gordon could have won at Dover. In fact, he led 60 laps, second only to teammate Jimmie Johnson, the race winner.
But because of a vibration and a loose wheel, Gordon was forced to pit under green with 75 of 400 laps remaining.
He had an advantage because he needed to make only one more pit stop where all others would require two.
But for that to work, the remainder of the race had to be caution-free. It wasn’t.
“Ultimately, we put ourselves in a position to get that finish,” Gordon said. “So, that’s very frustrating. We’ve had things out of our control this year.
“How we have been running tells me we can have a resurgence. We just have to keep doing what we are doing. Yes, we have to have good finishes.
“But now, it has reached the point where it is all about winning.”
And time is running short.