Saturday, September 11, 2010

Gordon's 54 Race Winless Streak Could Come To An End Saturday Night

By Micah Roberts

If asked how many wins a driver had on the season after 25 races by giving such clues as 1) having led 813 laps with 10 top-five finishes, 2) sitting second in points and 3) having 82 career wins, the easy answer would be three, or maybe even four wins. It would be a good guess based on the information given. But for Jeff Gordon, who boasts all those credentials, he still remains winless in 2010.
Gordon is in the midst of a 54-race winless streak, the longest of his career. His last win was at the spring Texas race last season, but by no means has that meant he hasn’t been competitive or close to snapping the streak. He was in prime position to win at Martinsville, Phoenix and Richmond earlier this year and got beat on two of those occasions in green-white-checker finishes, NASCAR’s equivalent to overtime.

At Las Vegas, Gordon led the most laps and was en route to victory until a gamble of taking only two tires in the final pit stop cost him, as Jimmie Johnson — with four new tires — passed Gordon with 16 laps remaining.

Despite the near misses this season, Gordon still has maintained his consistency throughout the year, compiling more top-fives than anyone except points leader Kevin Harvick. While he’ll be behind the likes of Johnson, Denny Hamlin, and Kurt and Kyle Busch once the Chase starts next week at New Hampshire due to them being seeded higher based on wins, the one thing his team shouldn't have to be concerned about is hitting that dry spell like each of those drivers have experienced.

The task at hand this week at Richmond is simple for Gordon: Just win, baby! As Gordon’s crew chief Steve Letarte explains, that is their goal this week and beyond.

“Richmond is an interesting week. You kind of start the year off wanting to be in the Chase. That’s your No. 1 goal. And then as you get closer and closer and closer to making it, all of a sudden you start to realize you haven’t won a race and you need to run better. Fortunately for the No. 24 team, we made the Chase a few weeks ago and now we’re working on winning races, and Richmond is one that comes to mind that I feel we could have won in the spring.”

During that spring race, Gordon led 144 laps and was leading with five laps to go but couldn’t hold off Kyle Busch following a late restart that brought the field back to Gordon. It was the third time on the season that Gordon had been beaten in what was a drag race over the final laps.

“We had a great car that night," said Letarte, "and it just came down to a last restart and we weren’t quite good enough to beat the No. 18 car. So it was an exciting race for sure, but it didn’t end up quite how we had hoped."

This week Letarte and Gordon have brought their fourth-place chassis from the June New Hampshire race which immediately signifies, beyond all of his great stats this season, that Gordon is a driver who should contend for the win.

Richmond, New Hampshire and Phoenix all mirror each other, despite being different in configuration, because of the relatively flat banking. Many of the teams that do well at one will use that same chassis for the other two. This season, no one has been collectively better on all three than Gordon. In addition to his fourth-place run at New Hampshire, Gordon was runner-up at both Phoenix and Richmond races.

Oddly, Gordon hasn’t won at Richmond since the 2000 season and only has two of his 82 career wins at the track in 35 starts. However, he’s on a stretch of great runs at Richmond where he’s finished no worse than ninth in seven straight races. Look for Gordon’s trend of good finishes on these type of tracks to continue while also possibly snapping a trend of not winning on any type of track.

Gordon didn’t have his best practice Friday at Richmond, but the notes from all three similar tracks this season will weigh much heavier during the race than what they did during those two sessions.

The driver who looks to be knocking on the door seriously this week is Carl Edwards who had his best career run at Richmond in May with a fifth-place finish. Edwards was fourth-fastest during the first session and then came out with the fastest times while in qualifying trim, which led to him sitting on the pole. Edwards has finished in the top five in four of the last five races and no one is hotter coming in.

Kyle Busch has one of the most impressive Richmond resumes of anyone at any particular track. Two wins with nine top-five finishes in 11 starts is about as sweet as it gets for any driver. His practice sessions weren’t very good, but don’t discount him by any means. Just like Gordon, his team will have the proper notes for the start time of racing, which is under the lights and in a different climate from all practices run.

The Childress drivers will fare well, led by Clint Bowyer and Harvick. Bowyer still hasn’t clinched the final position in the Chase, but he only needs to finish 28th or better to seal the deal. Bowyer’s only two career wins have come at the similar tracks of New Hampshire and Richmond and, based on practice, he could add win No. 3 this week. Bowyer brought his fourth-place Bristol chassis and set the fastest speed in the first practice session.

Harvick is a former Richmond winner as well and has always done well the track. He finished third in the spring and is using the same car that raced at all three similar tracks this season. Look for his consistency to continue with his 12th top-five finish of the season.

Johnson got out of his slump last week with a third-place finish at Atlanta and will be looking to carry the momentum over to a track at which he won at three times. He was the fastest in 15 lap averages during the important first session and, as current reigning four-time Cup champion, Johnson and his team can be expected to be sound as ever starting this week and throughout the final races of the season.

Juan Pablo Montoya made a strong impression during practice, finishing within the top four of each practice session, including qualifying. He had a career best sixth-place finish at Richmond in the spring and, based on practice, he fare better than that Saturday night. 

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