What We Learned from Fontana: Too Early to Count Out Jeff Gordon in 2010

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IFebruary 22, 2010

FONTANA, CA - FEBRUARY 21:  Jeff Gordon pits the #24 DuPont Chevrolet during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway on February 21, 2010 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

When you glance at this year's top-10 racers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings, a particular name is soundly absent from that list.

In a sport that tends to ask, "What have you done for me lately?" some fans have already started asking each other with this common question:

"What's wrong with Jeff Gordon?"

That question is followed up with fans wondering if Gordon's lost the ability to win and whether or not the team has truly made progress while their competition has seemingly stepped it up in the past decade.

Stock car racing is a performance-based industry, no matter how you slice it, whether you're a four-time series champion or a fledgling team needing sponsorship to even run a majority of the event.

For Gordon and his No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet group, it's been a relatively poor start to their 2010 season. Daytona and Fontana are traditionally some of their stronger tracks, yet various circumstances have often derailed their promising performances during race day.

Despite utilizing a backup machine during the Daytona 500, Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte were able to make gains with their Chevy Impala, marching to the front until settling into the top-10 for a majority of the race. However, it was a struggle to keep up with the fast lane.

Gordon felt that no matter which line he chose, the faster line was the opposite one he was at on the track. He was able to hold his own for a while in a green-flag run, but the car was not strong enough to make a true run for the lead.

Letarte stuck by the textbook belief that four fresh tires produce a car that runs much faster than those who stayed out, so he promptly called his driver down to pit road prior to the plethora of Green-White-Checkered overtime shootouts that decided "The Great American Race."

The stop dropped Gordon from a top-10 running position to 16th, where trouble would find "The Rainbow Warriors" for the remainder of the event. A pair of late-race incidents resulted in a frustrating finish, placing 26th in a car that could have easily been in the top-10 had they stayed out.

That said, it may be all hind-sighting and Letarte's call could have been as advantageous as it was costly for this Hendrick Motorsports team. After all, they were gunning for a victory, nothing more or less.

Encouragement was to be found at the second stop of the tour in Fontana, CA, at the two-mile Auto Club Speedway. While it had been six years since the team had last visited Victory Lane at this facility, ACS was one of their stronger tracks, with a pair of poles, three wins, and top-10 finishes. Certainly, redemption from Daytona was going to be sought there.

Instead, it was the latest chapter to a frustrating recurring theme for the No. 24 team, which seemed to be bulletproof during its title years. Immediately off the bat, Gordon and company found that their work was cut out for them on race day with a 28th starting position, tied for their worst effort since 2005.

Not a problem. Auto Club Speedway isn't necessarily a track that emphasizes on starting position, with its wide sweeping corners and smooth straights allowing for passing opportunities a plenty—well, with a fast, strong car anyway.

That's what the No. 24 team had for their race day package: a fast, strong car. In both pre-race practice sessions, they were among the top-10 fastest cars. They were all smiles by the time all the cars were covered up and left in the garage area for Sunday afternoon's event. Certainly, their car was going to be in the thick of things in the 250-lap event.

While the handling aspect was not much of an issue and the pit crew was solidly on its game all race long, a faulty spark plug and a loss of a cylinder were the culprits behind Gordon's woes and the poor finish of 20th.

Sure, they were able to finish the race, which was somewhat of a positive considering how close they were to going behind the wall with a premature finish that could have been in the mid-30s. Their car's powerplant had intermittent problems, unpredictably hindering the performance of the machine within striking distance of the finish.

At one point, while running in fourth position during the final 100 laps, Gordon told Letarte, via in-car radio, that he was experiencing motor problems. Believing the race would end early due an approaching rain cell, Gordon was told to stick it out and run as far as he could "before it blows up."

Suddenly, the car did slow down, dropping the No. 24 car from the top-five toward the rear of the lead-lap, running around the top-20 when the unpredictable happened. Almost like a tease, the motor ran back up to full song, allowing Gordon to keep up to speed after running five to six miles per hour slower than most of the leaders.

Despite the brief interlude of encouragement, problems ultimately befell the DuPont Chevy, with the motor dropping a cylinder toward the final 35 laps. Their finish was written in stone—there would be no trip to the winner's circle on a day that looked promising.

Instead, it was a day that saw them place in 20th position, which could be like a Gordon fan subjecting themselves to the series finale of Seinfeld: a great show with an ending that you knew would be unsatisfactory for reasons explainable and beyond some beyond rationality.

It's the No. 24 team's slowest start in some time, with two finishes of 20th or worse in the first races of 2010. As mentioned on Gordonline.com, the last instance in which this collective had two finishes of 20th or worse was in 1996, which resulted with 10 victories and a runner-up finish in a pre-Chase styled points standings.

Now that's not saying the DuPont team will suddenly hit a hot streak and win 10 events and stage this amazing comeback to an already dubious start to the season. Winning a race is pretty difficult as shown by Gordon, who was only able to grab a single victory in 2009 despite finishing third in the Chase points.

If a four-time champion like Gordon is only able to win once, it shows just how much tougher the game of stock car racing has been since his last title year in 2001. Fractions of seconds are the difference between being up front to falling back, with constant adjustments, pit stops, and equipment reliability serving as some of the aspects that must run arguably on "all cylinders" for success on Sundays (or Saturday nights).

Luck also has a role with it all as well, with teams never truly having total destiny of what happens to them during the race. Sometimes, you have to be real lucky to win in this sport, as sheer skill cannot be merely enough to propel a team from the depths of trouble.

Las Vegas is the next stop on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit and it is definitely a pivotal race for the No. 24 team if they want to contend for victories and a solid spot for a Chase position. Nothing is ever guaranteed to any racer, much less a driver who's arguably been one of the most successful stars in the modern era. However, a history lesson may be worth noting:

Gordon fans will be quick to point out how the Pontiac Excitement 400 at Richmond International Raceway in 1996 was a season-turning moment for the No. 24 bunch, in which their season started with a 42nd and 40th place finish at Daytona and Rockingham, NC.

Their victory at "The Action Track" translated into a strong March, with a third-place effort at Atlanta and victories at Darlington and Bristol, boosting them from nowhere land to championship contender's island in the top-10 in points heading into April of that year.

Letarte and Gordon must instill confidence with their team and themselves that the ship can get through these turbulent times, as proven before with a team that knows how to respond to adversity. The critics have pointed out that Gordon has lost his competitive edge and seemingly cannot find that killer instinct to go for victories.

Ironically, the tour's next stop is at the track where "Four-Time" experienced his hardest accident yet, with a head-on collision with the infield-retaining wall in the backstretch that knocked the wind out of the racer in the 2008 race.

Whether or not he's said so, the accident did shake him up and like any racer who's had their worst accident at a particular track, it's expected of him to be somewhat gun-shy at that facility. Darrell Waltrip was that way with Daytona, while Rusty Wallace experienced those hesitations at any plate race following his harrowing accidents at Daytona and Talladega in '93.

One way for Gordon and company to exorcise those inner demons is with a trip to Gatorade Victory Lane at this 1.5-mile facility, which is certainly not out of the cards with this team. If there's one thing fans know about the No. 24 team, it's their motto which they have followed since their auspicious series debut at Atlanta in Nov. of '92:

"Refuse to Lose."

After all, it's what's carried them to 82 career victories, four titles, and a career that's certainly going to land driver Jeff Gordon into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Their case for more wins for a true legend begins this week and for the rest of this action-packed, competitive 2010 season.