NASCAR at Atlanta: Jeff Has to Put the 'Go' Back in Gordon to Lift Chase Hopes

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistAugust 31, 2012

Jeff Gordon moved into third on NASCAR's all-time wins list with his victory at Atlanta last year. Can he make it 2-for-2 on Sunday night?
Jeff Gordon moved into third on NASCAR's all-time wins list with his victory at Atlanta last year. Can he make it 2-for-2 on Sunday night?John Harrelson/Getty Images

As a four-time Sprint Cup champion and winner of 86 Cup races, Jeff Gordon is rarely at a loss for confidence.

And even with just two races remaining to make this year's ninth edition of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and Gordon currently being 21 points behind Carl Edwards and 16 points behind Kyle Busch for the likely 12th and final Chase berth, Gordon knows the task at hand and is ready to go out and do it.

"We have to win," Gordon said with both a resolve and matter-of-fact outlook.

In a sense, even with the deficit he's facing behind the other two drivers, not to mention he's only missed qualifying for the Chase just once in its previous eight editions, Gordon is like Mad magazine's Alfred E. Neuman: When it comes to his chances for the Chase, Gordon has assumed a very Neuman-esque "What, me worry?" approach. (And no, we're not talking about Ryan Newman, either!)

Consider what Gordon said during a press conference at Bristol last week:

“Honestly, I feel like we have pocket aces and an ace king suited for Richmond (the final Chase qualifying race, next Saturday)," Gordon told reporters.

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When asked a follow-up question about whether he can win this Sunday night's race at Atlanta—which, coincidentally, Gordon comes into as defending champion, having won last year's race there—he made no bones about making it two-for-two.

"Atlanta absolutely—we won there last year—(is) another track we can win at," Gordon said. "Richmond is a track that we have run very well at but we struggled the last time we were there, so we have some work to do there. I still feel like we can get that, improve that. The next (two) tracks are great tracks for us. They are also good tracks for some other drivers."

Atlanta Motor Speedway indeed is good for other drivers, as well. As one of the two fastest, non-restrictor plate tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit, the 1.5-mile oval should produce off-the-chart speeds and some exciting racing under the lights on Sunday night.

Gordon will have his hands full with a guy like Edwards, who is a three-time winner at Atlanta, but has yet to win even one race thus far this season on the Cup schedule. Busch also runs well there, but only sporadically.

Gordon will be making his 39th career Cup start at Atlanta on Sunday night, and has an outstanding record there coming in: Five wins, 15 top-5 and 25 top-10 finishes. In addition, his average start and finish are nearly identical: 12.4 to 12.2, one of the best start/finish records of all active drivers there.

Edwards has been nothing short of outstanding at the track they call ATL, as well: In 14 starts, he has three wins, eight top-5s and 10 top-10s. His average starting spot (10.5) is better than Gordon, but his average finish is slightly lower (13.3) than the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet.

Gordon, and for that matter Edwards, has a definite edge over Busch when it comes to racing at Atlanta. In 14 career starts there, the younger Busch brother has one win, but just a total of three top-5s and top-10s.

In other words, Busch has finished outside the top-10 in 11 of his 14 starts there—Busch has an average start of 12.2, but a less than sterling average finish of 17.7—which doesn't exactly promise a whole lot of optimism nor enhance his Chase qualifying chances coming into Sunday's race for fans of the driver of the No. 18 Toyota.

Even worse, Busch has a less than inspiring record in his last seven starts at AMS: First, fifth, 18th, 13th, 25th, fifth and 23rd (last year's race).

By comparison, Edwards has finished 42nd, first, third, 37th, 39th, second and fifth in his last seven starts at AMS.

And as for Gordon, he's been nothing short of outstanding in his last seven starts at Atlanta: Fifth, ninth, second, eighth, 18th, 13th and first (last year).

Add all that up and, while nothing is ever assured, Gordon may just have the kismet to go along with the confidence that he will still make the Chase. There's just one thing left to do.

"When you’ve got guys like Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman, guys that can win at any time, that pressure is on that you’ve got to step-up your game and win, too," Gordon said. "Now, we have no other choice."

All quotes obtained first-hand via press release.