NASCAR Chase Patrol: Will Jeff Gordon Make Martinsville His House Again?

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IOctober 24, 2009

MARTINSVILLE, VA - OCTOBER 23:  Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 DuPont/NationalGuard.com Chevrolet, walks in the garage area prior to practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series TUMS Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 23, 2009 in Martinsville, Virginia.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

If any track on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series circuit matched a racer's personality with their driving style, Jeff Gordon and the Martinsville Speedway are quite the potent combination.

While Jimmie Johnson has the best average finish of the championship contenders (5.3), his grizzled teammate holds the distinction of being the active all-time winner at the 0.53-mile paper-clip shape facility with seven victories in 33 career starts.

With time running out for the Chase competitors to mount a charge against Johnson, the points leader and three-time consecutive champion, Martinsville could serve as the first true race where the points race might shuffle significantly.

"All you really wanna do is get maximum points and finish ahead of the guys you're racing in points," said Gordon. "Other than Jimmie, we're doing that."

In the past five weeks, the No. 24 DuPont/National Guard Chevy team has been on a relative tear, just overshadowed by the typical dominance of the No. 48 Lowe's group.

Climbing from 10th in the standings after their disappointment at Loudon to third following a late-race gamble at Charlotte, Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte have shown they've been good thus far.

Now it's time to show the competition that they're the best. So far, they've started their assault on a high note, qualifying on the outside pole alongside Ryan Newman on Friday.

"This is the kind of qualifying session that we were certainly hoping for so it's nice to see things going our way this weekend," Gordon noted. "The car has been great. Felt like this car was really good in our race runs as well."

Despite their strong qualifying effort and having the second best pit road selection, Johnson is still in the back of their minds when it comes to the driver to beat come Sunday afternoon's TUMS Fast Relief 500 (Live, 1 p.m. EDT on ABC ).

When asked about his starting spot in relation to Johnson's subpar start of 15th, Gordon observed, "We've seen these guys be strong and run well on Sunday no matter where they start and I think they will be (again)."

Speaking from experience, the four-time series champion knows that while the road to Victory Lane is difficult from a distant starting spot, teamwork and luck are key ingredients in putting yourself in position for the checkered flag.

In 2005, Gordon started 16th and 15th in the annual 500-lappers, working his way to the front to capture both races in an otherwise turbulent season.

His victory in the April '05 race was particularly special, as he battled back from wheel problems and a three lap deficit to a dramatic victory that had all the typical Martinsville fireworks on that Sunday afternoon.

Making that race win even sweeter was car owner Rick Hendrick's presence at the track, the first event held at the track since the tragic aviation accident of Oct. '04 that killed four members of his family as well as other racing figures.

Six months later, the No. 24 team was in its initial races with newly installed crew chief Letarte, who replaced Robbie Loomis following a fruitless summer campaign. Having some rough races in his debut, the pressure was building on the young headwrench.

Displaying his knowledge from previous leaders Ray Evernham and Loomis, Letarte and the DuPont team kept Gordon in the top five virtually all race long. Gordon eventually took the lead late in that event to hold off a hard-charging Tony Stewart for what was his most recent checkers at the track.

There's also been days when Gordon has dominated, such as his victories Sept. 22, 1996, Apr. 20, 1997, and both races in 2003. Even when competitors tried to spin him out (yes, Jimmy Spencer!), the No. 24 car was a part of the late-race battles, holding the lead all the way to the winner's circle.

Johnson and Knaus may "own" Martinsville in recent years, and rightfully so, winning six of the past 10 races at this track. However, nobody has been better, wins count wise, than Gordon, who is probably the strongest Chase performer next to Team 48.

Sunday's race might not be the end of the playoffs if Johnson finds his way to another win.

Sure, there might be a stranglehold for the points lead if that blue and black Chevrolet parks in the make shift Victory Lane along the front stretch after a four-hour war of trading paint.

If the big picture should change and someone else rises to the challenge, look no further than a black and silver car dominating the race with a determined and hungry 38-year-old Californian.

After all, eight years is a lengthy period for a Cup champ to not win a series title. Martinsville may mark the spot for this legendary team to write a new chapter in its storied, 18-year history.

 

Rob's Rants

So while others may feel the need to throw the white flag on a chase that has belonged to Hendrick Motorsports, I think we need to see what unfolds in the upcoming races before the Cup is conceded.

Be it Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, or another driver, this year's titlist will have worked their hardest to defeat a formidable chase field. It's not everyday that a driver can say they competed against a former Indy 500 winner, Daytona 500 champs, or NASCAR Cup victors.

Sure, Johnson just might have a cakewalk to title number four, but if that's the case, they deserved this championship as they have from 2006-'08.

While the remaining tracks could have been chosen more distinctively, most of the competitors feel that the biggest wild card of the postseason is Talladega.

Think about it. These drivers will have to forge alliances which will be short-lived for as quick as a millisecond or as long as a few laps.

Every driver and fan knows that just a slight mistake on the track could be the difference between being in the right position for a win to gazing at a mangled mess of sheet metal in the garage area.

Then there's the possibility of Johnson or any Chaser encountering trouble down the stretch. And it could very well happen, whether it's Talladega or even Sunday's vent at Martinsville.

A lot will happen between now and Homestead-Miami next month. As race fans, we ought to just sit back, enjoy the races, and regardless of who wins it all, we'll at least be able to talk it over and exchange ideas and opinions all with sport's greatest fans: NASCAR aficionados.

Writer's Note: This article goes out to my always supportive family, who've been my biggest inspiration since I joined this site last year. From my parents to my siblings, they are my biggest fans and supporters of my life.

I also want to dedicate this piece to my friend and "lil' sis," Cat Trivino, who not only is the coolest editor-in-chief I know for a student publication, but a wonderful individual who is wise beyond her years.

Salut to you all, and love and mercy to us all!