Pocono could be perfect spot to solve Jeff Gordon’s Chase anxiety

jutter@charlotteobserver.comAugust 3, 2013 

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Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet, climbs out of his car during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway.

JARED C. TILTON — Getty Images

— No one has more wins at Pocono Raceway than Jeff Gordon.

No one has led more laps at Pocono than Jeff Gordon.

And yet few consider Jeff Gordon a serious threat to win Sunday’s GoBowling.com 400 or more importantly this season’s Sprint Cup Series championship.

Why is that?

Perhaps it’s because this season, more so than any other in recent memory, the trademark Gordon has carried throughout his NASCAR career – consistency – has eluded him.

“This year has been a strange year for us. I feel like last year we showed a little bit more speed up to this point and I felt like all we needed were some breaks to go our way, and a few slight changes to get ourselves in (the Chase),” Gordon said.

“This year we just can’t seem to really get a hold of it.”

Only now, with six races remaining before the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup field is set has Gordon and his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsport team been able to string together several strong finishes.

Gordon has finished in the Top 10 in four of his past five races which has propelled him from 16th to 10th in the series standings. The top 10 in points after 26 races qualify for the Chase.

It sounds like Gordon is right where he needs to be, and he is – but only if he can stay there.

With no wins yet this season to help gain entry through the Chase’s two wild card spots, Gordon must remain 10th or higher in points to secure a Chase berth.

With Tony Stewart only one point behind, Gordon is a single position on the track away from losing everything he’s gained in the past five weeks.

Yet as his statistics attest, Pocono is as good a track as any for Gordon to make a stand.

“It’s a good track for us, a good place for us to come and fight and do battle like what we’ve been used to doing this year and last year to claw our way into the Chase,” he said. “There are not enough points that are safe enough, and you want to get those wins to try to secure things up for you.

“We’ve got a lot of tough competitors that we’re racing and battling with for 10th in points as well as this wild card spot. To me, our focus is just getting out there and living up to our full potential and get some consistency out of it.”

That’s been a harder task than usual this season. Every step forward has been followed by a giant leap back.

After finishing ninth at Phoenix in the second race of the season, Gordon was 25th at Las Vegas and 34th at Bristol, Tenn.

After finishing third at Martinsville, Va., he was 38th the next week at Texas. After another third at Darlington, S.C., Gordon was a disappointing 35th at Charlotte.

While Gordon’s teammates at Hendrick – Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne – have all remained in and around the Top 10 most of the season, Gordon finds himself in the coveted position for just the fourth time this year.

“It’s been one of those years where we’ve seen guys, they hit on something and they go out and win the race and there is no way to predict when and who that is going to happen with,” he said.

“That’s why we just have to continue to stay focused and work hard because that could be us and if it’s not then we have to make sure that we’re knocking down those Top 10s.”

It was just a year ago Gordon needed last-race heroics – a second-place finish at Richmond – to secure a spot in the Chase. He was hoping such a dramatic showdown wouldn’t be required again.

“The last couple weeks have gone decent, but we know we are capable of just doing so much more so it’s frustrating. It is,” Gordon said.

“There has been frustration throughout the team that we haven’t been able to perform better than we have.”

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