What Jeff Gordon Must Do to Capture 5th Career Sprint Cup Title in 2013
(Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images)
Being 27 points out of first place and with just three races remaining, it's pretty clear Jeff Gordon is a long shot to rally for his fifth career Sprint Cup title.
To best illustrate why, look at what happened Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.
Gordon came into the race in fifth place, 34 points behind then-points leader Jimmie Johnson, and 30 points behind then-runnerup Matt Kenseth.
So what happens? Gordon goes out and wins the race, his eighth career Cup victory at the half-mile bullring in southern Virginia.
And how many points does Gordon pick up on Johnson and Kenseth—who left Martinsville tied atop the standings—in the process?
A measly seven points.
So you can see Gordon's chances for title No. 5 are somewhere between slim and practically nil heading into this Sunday's race at the always fast—and always unpredictable—Texas Motor Speedway.
Even if Gordon were to keep his Martinsville momentum going and wins all three of the remaining races, if Johnson and Kenseth stand pat points- and standings-wise, Gordon would still likely wind up somewhere about six to 10 points short of the crown.
That's a lot of ifs.
But for the sake of argument, let's assume that by good fortune, luck or what have you, Gordon still has a chance at the Cup title heading into the season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in about 3 ½ weeks.
Maybe Johnson or Kenseth—or both—have a bad race at either Texas or the following race at Phoenix, and Gordon is able to capitalize significantly in the standings.
Does Jeff Gordon still have a chance to win the Sprint Cup championship this season?
So what does Gordon have to do to reach Homestead still in contention—and I'm not just talking hypothetical mathematical contention, the kind where Johnson and Kenseth would have to finish last and second-to-last for Gordon to have any kind of last-ditch chance?
Face it, Johnson and Kenseth finishing at the back of the pack is not going to happen. Or at least it's highly unlikely.
Gordon won for the first time in his career at Homestead last season, beating Clint Bowyer fair and square, one week after Gordon intentionally wrecked Bowyer at Phoenix, sparking a 10-minute free-for-all along pit road.
Worse, Gordon's actions at Phoenix all but eliminated Bowyer from any last-ditch shot at the championship.
Sure, Bowyer may be looking for payback at Homestead this year if Gordon is still in contention, but that's another story for another day.
Ironically, Bowyer's runner-up finish to Gordon at Homestead last year allowed the former to finish second in the championship standings behind Brad Keselowski.
What Gordon has to do in these last three races is not play defense. He can't afford to, being 27 points back. Sure, there's something to be said about being careful, not taking too many chances and being smart about car control and care.
But Gordon has learned more than his share of tricks in 20 years on the Cup circuit. He knows all three tracks like the back of his hand.
So here's the kind of strategy I propose (let's get your thoughts after you finish reading this):
First, Gordon has to do everything possible to go for the pole at both Texas and Homestead. Winning the pole at Phoenix isn't all that crucial, given it's a one-mile near-flat track that allows drivers to make up ground fairly effectively, and certainly much easier than at Texas or Homestead.
Second, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson have to do something completely off the wall, something so unpredictable that will catch their opponents—particularly Johnson, Kenseth and their respective crew chiefs Chad Knaus and Jason Ratcliff—completely off-guard.
Pit off-sequence, for one. Don't necessarily wait for a caution to head to the pits. Rather, come in when others are least expecting it, perhaps 10 laps before the pit window closes.
The logic behind that is simple: Gordon gets fresher tires and more fuel and forces other drivers and crew chiefs to wonder if they should follow suit.
Such an act could really mess up another team's mojo and karma.
Another thing I'd suggest, particularly at a place like Phoenix: gamble with two-tire stops. Tires wear fairly quick at Texas, which is considered among the top-three fastest racetracks on the Sprint Cup tour. Going for two tires there, while possible, is too much of a gamble for a guy who is 27 points back.
It might be something Johnson or Kenseth might try, especially if it significantly improves track position for them, but Texas isn't the place for Gordon to go for just two tires, unless he pits with a substantial lead at the time.
And definitely don't pit for just two tires during an off-sequence stop. If he's going to go for two, do it only under caution.
Here's another suggestion: how about not Gordon intentionally not getting his gas tank completely full? That's a radical idea, of course, but the lighter the car, the faster the car.
Especially if he only takes two tires on the same stop.
For that to happen, though, Sunday's race at Texas would have to turn into a Talladega-like wreckfest, which would almost guarantee the flexibility for Gordon to pit or not under caution and off-sequence.
And, if Gordon does pit off-sequence or gambles with a two-tire stop, he could force his opponents to follow suit and they may wind up getting themselves into trouble while Gordon merrily drives by with a huge smile on his face.
I'm willing to bet that Gordon and Gustafson and many others at Hendrick Motorsports are weighing all types of strategic options for the remaining three races.
They have to do what Johnson and Kenseth won't do, because the two tied points leaders can't afford to take high-risk gambles, even if they're well-calculated.
Yes, it's going to be difficult for Gordon to rally in the remaining trio of events to claim his fifth career Cup crown and deny Johnson his sixth or Kenseth his second.
But it can be done. It just takes a little chutzpah and thinking outside the normal Sprint Cup racing strategy box.
And if that doesn't work?
Well, maybe Gordon can discreetly drop a few razor-sharp nails on the track in front of the two guys he's chasing.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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