DARLINGTON, S.C. – It has been well documented that Jeff Gordon is having, what is for him, a horrendous season.
The four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, who has won 85 races during his career, has gone through the first 10 races of this season without a victory.
Worse, he has only two finishes among the top-10, an eighth at Phoenix and a fourth at Texas, and currently stands a dismal 23rd in the driver point standings
The word has already spread: Points-wise, Gordon may have too much ground to make up before the Chase begins. Therefore, he must win to give himself a “wildcard” shot at the 2012 “playoff” – and the sooner the better.
The “sooner” is this weekend’s Bojangle’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway which is, once again, scheduled to be run under the lights.
It could well be the race where Gordon makes something positive happen – even a victory.
Why not? He will surely be listed as a pre-race favorite, if for no other reason than he leads all active competitors with victories at the old, treacherous 1.366-mile track.
He has seven for his career, behind only David Pearson (10) and the late Dale Earnhardt (nine).
His last win came in 2007, the third year after NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway race became Darlington’s only event, and was run at night.
As said, it’s been speculated that if Gordon is going to win, and therefore turn his season around, it absolutely must begin at Darlington.
Frankly, given that after this weekend there are still 25 races remaining before the Chase begins, it may not be as serious as all that – at least for now.
But, for Gordon, it’s serious enough. He knows his season has to change for the better by one means or another.
“I think this year we have had some fast race cars,” said Gordon, whose last championship came in 2001. “When you have fast race cars it makes it easier to win.
“But just because you have a fast race car, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to win.”
Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports team are a testament to that. As fast as they may have been from track to track this season, they have encountered all manner of problems that have repelled victory and sent them plummeting in the standings.
For example, Gordon suffered engine failure after just 81 laps into the Daytona 500, which led to a 40th-place finish. Pit road mistakes took him out of a top-five run at Fontana.
He seemed to have victory in hand at Martinsville, a track on which he has nearly always performed admirably.
He led 328 laps but a late-race maneuver by Clint Bowyer sent Gordon into a crash with teammate Jimmie Johnson. Gordon finished 14th.
For Gordon last week at Talladega things were, in a word, bizarre. He won the pole but never really contended because he was constantly fighting an overheating problem – which, incidentally, he predicted he might.
Gordon suggested that restrictor-plate rules applied by NASCAR at Talladega were “going to be a big issue here because we all knew how hard it was to keep the water and engine temperatures cool at Daytona – and that was a night race.”
Even so, in the Aaron’s 499 Gordon might have overcome his problems and achieved a decent finish. But any chance to do so was taken away after he became involved in a nine-car accident – not of his own making – after 142 laps. He drifted to 33rd place.
“Man this is one of the most bizarre years that this Hendrick Motorsports team has ever gone through,” Gordon said afterward on national television. “I mean it’s almost comical at this point.
“That was not fun. I didn’t like hitting the wall. I was just cruising by on the inside and it looked like somebody got into Martin (Truex Jr.) and turned him into me.
“That’s just the way our season has been going.”
As a competitor on NASCAR’s top circuit since 1993, Gordon has seen it all. He knows full well drivers can enjoy seasons that are productive – but they can also frustratingly endure ones that are not.
He admits that productive seasons are tougher to accomplish. The level of competition in NASCAR today, along with an established equality in the cars across the board, makes the difference.
“I think these days there is so much more depth in all the teams,” he said. “More than there ever has been.
“And there is more competition because of the car itself. With this car it’s so hard to get an edge on the competition, so everybody is equal.
“There’s a lot of great talent behind the wheel, the crews are training harder than ever before, there’s pit strategy and there’s engineering. It’s harder to get an edge.
“But I don’t think that means it is necessarily harder to win.”
Gordon referred to his previous point – that if a driver routinely has a fast car, no matter how it’s attained, he can, and should, win.
Gordon has had a fast car. But he hasn’t won.
Sure, he’s had his share of misfortune. But he won’t blame that for all of his woes.
“I’m not one to think big about luck,” he said. “I feel like you don’t luck yourself into wins, you work your way into wins. You have to have those fast cars and all that comes with them – pit strategy and all those things. They all play a role.
“We have had a lot of things that have kept us from winning this year. We’ve had parts break and bad pit stops. We have had engine issues.
“But we have always had a fast car.”
If that is the case at Darlington Gordon suggests strongly he will have a very good chance to win. Rest assured, if all goes at it should for his Hendrick team, he’ll say that more than once during this race weekend.
He believes a fast car should be enough – provided, of course, one of those dreaded “things” doesn’t occur.