As the Chase approaches, Jeff Gordon's 2009 season can go in two directions: either en route to a fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship or down the road of disappointment and gloom in what has been, overall, a solid campaign.
Compared to last year's disappointment that saw no wins and a seventh place finish in points, 13 top-fives and 20 top-10s, the story of 2009 has been one of resurgence and ascension to prime form.
Most notably, fans of the 38-year-old will note how Gordon and the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet team has been consistently been a contender to win races, unlike their sub-par 2008 season.
In addition, the four-time NASCAR Cup champion has clinched his spot in the Chase, leaving this Hendrick Motorsports unit in a position to go for wins at Atlanta and Richmond rather than opting for a conservative strategy for top-five finishes.
That said, the summer of '09 has not treated Gordon and his crew quite well. While observers may note that their struggles began in June at Dover, the first sign of troubles for "The Rainbow Warriors" came at Richmond in May.
Discussions about Gordon's back problems initiated and the critics and fans soon began to wonder if Four-Time's health would become a factor down the stretch for the title.
While the seasoned champ has repeatedly denied that his ailing back would impair his shot at winning races and the title, you can't help but wonder, at the very least, if it has distracted the No. 24 camp.
Dover was about one of the poorest showings displayed by the DuPont team in recent memory, looking hardly like the perennial contender as in years past for wins and front-runner finishes.
From a crash in the qualifying session to the May 31 race, it was an utter disaster no matter how even the most avid racing fan could observe.
Starting 42nd in a backup machine, Gordon could only muster a 26th-place finish at his sponsor's backyard. Daytona, Watkins Glen, and Bristol were notable disappointments, which traditionally have been their playgrounds—at least in the past.
There were glimpses of sunshine for the FireStorm crew. Witness:
Pocono may have seen a fourth-place effort by this group, but they were hardly in a position for a win at the Tricky Triangle. Still, the result was quite stellar when considering the fuel mileage drama toward the conclusion of that June 7 event.
Both races at Michigan were superb, logging in second-place showings at the Irish Hills speedway.
Meanwhile, the story of the road course season was one filled with tremendous question marks.
Sure, Gordon salvaged a ninth-place at Infineon, but Watkins Glen continued to be a "House of Horrors," crashing vividly with Sam Hornish Jr. and Jeff Burton for a 37th nightmare.
As for the story that was the Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, it was more of a horrible movie that had some flashes of hope culminating in a predictably atrocious ending with a 23rd-place finish.
With the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heading to the Hampton, GA track this weekend, there's only one thing in mind for Gordon: victories.
"That's really all we have to gain right now other than maybe a little momentum," Gordon said.
With the No. 24 team in a position to opt for an aggressive posture, Gordon added, "The wins would be great because we don't want to go into the Chase at a deficit in points and have to make up those points."
And why not?
Victories at Atlanta and Richmond would put the Gordon Express in a tie for third in points once the Chase starts at Loudon, N.H. Momentum would surely be in store if Team 24 pulls off a pair of aces at these facilities.
Both facilities have been favorable facilities to the DuPont Motorsports crew. However, both driver and crew are aware of this particular strategy: Win or bust.
In comparison to the first quarter of the racing season, Gordon and company hardly look like the fierce competitors that were unleashed from the get-go at Daytona.
Save for the rain-shortened finish that saw them come home in 13th spot, the black, red, and yellow Chevrolet finished amongst the top-10 in six consecutive races, including a long-overdue triumph at Texas Motor Speedway in April.
Some may say that their poor showing at Phoenix was the initial signs of the summer of discontent. Others may point out to their early Talladega wreck, in which the native Californian took a beating in the Pepsi Challenger mount.
Whether the competition has improved and/or the No. 24 team has failed on making its cars adjustable throughout the race, answers must be found now before it enters the Chase merely as a "run-in."
Sunday night's race at Atlanta may be an elixir for Gordon, as his team's intermediate speedway program has been consistently on a tear. Just how excellent has the DuPont team been at these high speed tracks?
Their poorest finish was a 14th-place result in the rain-shortened 600-miler at Charlotte. Not too shabby for a team that looked lost at these tracks in 2008.
Returning to the venue where they rallied home to a runner-up finish in the Mar. 8 running of the Kobalt Tools 500, the Pep Boys 500 might be the medicine to cure not only an ailing back problem for Gordon, but a cure to wash away those summer blues.
A points lead may be out of the question should Kyle Busch make the Chase. Wins in the next two races, however, are not out of the cards.