At Michigan International Speedway on Sunday, Jeff Gordon's car readily jumped between wild handling conditions. None of them ever seemed to be what the four-time series champion needed.
The race itself was also far from what Gordon wanted or needed in his bid to score a spot in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Sunday at Michigan wasn't good. At one point, Gordon radioed emphatically to his crew that the car felt like it had found a patch of ice. At another, he referred to the car's entry into Turn 3 as a "four-wheel slide." The car would also push. Then, without warning, it would snap loose.
The result was the third-straight disheartening race for Gordon. His 17th-place finish in the Pure Michigan 400 followed last week's dismal 36th-place crash-ridden outing at Watkins Glen and the previous weekend's late loss to Kasey Kahne at Pocono. There, Gordon watched a late lead disappear when he played it too cautious on the race's final restart and watched helplessly as Kahne blew by for the win.
All told, Gordon is now dropping perilously in the series point standings as crunch time approaches.
Looking back now, the Pocono moment continues to rise as a larger and larger moment in Gordon's now-desperate effort to secure a coveted berth in the Chase. A win at Pocono would have not only netted more precious points, but it would have also scored Gordon a key first win of the 2013 season.
NASCAR sets the field for the postseason-like championship fight by taking the top ten in points plus two more from 11th to 20th who have the most wins after September's race at Richmond International Raceway. There are now just three of those races left—500 laps at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday night, 500 miles at Atlanta Motor Speedway (Sept. 1) and 400 laps at Richmond International Raceway (Sept. 14).
Gordon is going to need all three of those races to make his case for the right to vie for a Sprint Cup crown this year. Too often this season, his attempts have featured poor closing arguments in the form of bad restarts or mediocre finishes.
But a last-minute comeback is certainly not an unheralded move for Gordon. As it is, a decent probability of Gordon forcing a feeling of déjà vu to reign over the field by the time the regular season expires stills exists.
It was just last season that Gordon left Michigan's August race in a bad way, down and out from an engine failure after 167 laps. A possessor of one win by that point in 2012, Gordon was 15th in the point standings and a hefty 77 points from the 10th-place automatic transfer spot. He also had two drivers between him and the 12th and final wild card spot.
This time around, Gordon is again two drivers behind the Chase wild card cutoff. Fortunately, his gap to 10th sits at just 26 points.
Making matters better are a few signs in favor of Gordon stemming from the tide of blown opportunities and missed points. His recent performance on the last three tracks of the regular season have been good.
In the last five years, Gordon has one win and a total of 12 top-5 finishes at Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond. The win came at Atlanta—his 7.2 average finish since 2008 is his best of the three tracks—but Gordon also finished third at Bristol last fall and watched his day end helplessly with a tire failure at Bristol in the spring. At the time, Gordon was leading.
Gordon also stands to benefit from Hendrick Motorsports playing a conservative card with the allotted number of mid-week testing sessions at series race tracks this season.
The team was hoping to get the most accurate, up-to-date setup information as close to the start of the Chase as possible. Gordon joined his teammates for a test last week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and Hendrick will send drivers for a two-day Richmond test session (other teams will be present, too) ahead of the weekend action at Bristol.
Of course, testing and past performances are no guarantee for Gordon. No matter how, he and the team stand in desperate need of finding a way to at least 12th in the pre-Chase qualifying order. The team and Gordon woke up quickly enough last season in the final throes of the regular season to find a remedy that proved successful.
With more bad taste in his mouth after Michigan, that quick fix is needed again.
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