- Bob Pockrass, NASCAR
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DOVER, Del. -- Jeff Gordon enters the midway point of the 2015 regular season mired among the winless. He finds himself in the mix of those who have enough points to possibly land a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but a couple of wrecks or pit-road hiccups could cripple those Chase plans.
In his final Sprint Cup season, Gordon has one last chance to make the Chase. Combine that pressure and stress with a team trying to rebound from failing to capitalize in 2014 on one of its best shots to win the title and it would make sense to believe those around him, and Gordon himself, might just be pressing too hard.
Gordon, ninth in the standings with just two top-5s this year, would have none of that talk. He traces his team's lack of execution to a simple reason:
"They are just as excited to give me their best in my final year as I am to give them my best and us to work well together as a team," Gordon said Friday. "I think that most of that push right now is just coming because we are not performing as well as we feel like we are capable of."
In that sense, Gordon finds himself in good company Sunday in the FedEx 400, the 13th race of the 26-race regular season, at Dover International Speedway. The drivers eighth through 13th in the Sprint Cup standings have no wins and just 17 points separate those six drivers. The lowest among them, Paul Menard in 16th, has a 40-point cushion on 17th-place Clint Bowyer for the current final spot in the Chase based on points.
The winless drivers know they can't count on their points getting them in the Chase. Some of them most likely will get in by points -- five new winners beneath them in points seems unlikely in the next 14 races -- but they don't know whether only one driver will get in the 16-driver Chase field based on points or whether several will advance in a system where a win trumps points position.
With a restrictor-plate race at Daytona and road-course events at Sonoma and Watkins Glen on the regular-season docket, the bubble drivers know a good chance exists that at least one or two new winners from among those behind them in points is a possibility. Kyle Busch could win a race and if he can rally into the top 30 in points, another spot will be stripped from the winless.
Those on the bubble at the midseason point have a little bit of the unenviable position on whether to take risks or use strategy. They saw fuel strategy allow Carl Edwards to win last week at Charlotte and improve from 18th to 16th in actual points, ninth in the standings but with the victory he is likely in the Chase.
"Carl winning last week didn't help," said Jamie McMurray, who sits eighth in points but 11th in the standings. "I feel like we'll be able to outpoint him until Richmond. So when I saw someone that is really behind me in points wins, that's not good for pointing your way in."
Following McMurray and Gordon in the standings are Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Aric Almirola and Menard. They all would consider their seasons good but not great when compared to the winless driver of Martin Truex Jr., who sits second in points and 10th in the standings but is a virtual lock to make the Chase as he has 79 points on McMurray.
"The reason we are ninth in points is because we have been consistent," said Gordon, who has seven top-10s and one race where he failed to finish. "We have certainly been consistent, but that is definitely not good enough for us. We want to be better."
It is an interesting mix of drivers among the winless. Gordon and Kahne, both winners last year, drive for a Hendrick Motorsports organization that has not had its typical swagger.
Almirola won last year and yet drives for a Richard Petty Motorsports organization that appears to continue to fight an uphill battle. The other three need a win just to remember what it's like in Victory Lane: Richard Childress Racing's Menard has a 136-race winless streak, his teammate Newman's winless streak sits at 64 and Chip Gansassi Racing's McMurray, who won the 2014 Sprint All-Star Race, is winless in the last 52 points races.
"I want to win," Newman said. "I'm not happy with second just because it's a good points day. I want us to win as a team. I think it will motivate [us]. We were so close a few times last year and at the start of this year, we could taste it but just because you can taste it doesn't mean you can eat it. We're sniffing it."
Newman would have a much more comfortable position if not for a 50-point penalty NASCAR issued after determining the team bled air out of its tires in March at Auto Club Speedway. His crew chief Luke Lambert has been benched by NASCAR the last three weeks, including two points races, and his suspension lasts another four events.
Todd Parrott, who has a Cup title with Dale Jarrett on his résumé, has guided the Newman team in the interim.
"We've gone through a pretty good transitional period with Luke being gone," said Newman, who has finishes of 10th and sixth in the two races without Lambert. "It's been decent results but a bit of a struggle to get to there. This weekend here is our fourth together and hopefully prove that we have kind of gelled a little bit more."
In many ways, these drivers have felt frustration. Seven races into the season, Kahne sat fifth in points. But a wreck at Bristol resulted in a 37th and a wreck at Talladega resulted in a 34th-place day. Finishing outside the top-10 at Kansas and Charlotte has left him 10th in points and 13th in the standings.
"We still have a lot of races before the Chase starts and I would sure hope we could figure out how to win," Kahne said. "It's better to win, but I think we have a realistic shot to do it through points because we have good cars and have a solid team.
"Every aspect on our team keeps getting a little bit better. ... I want to [get in] by wins. I want to win races. We need to figure out how to do that."
Almirola has had the least chance to win. He doesn't have a top-10 all year. He hasn't led a lap all year. But he only has one finish outside the top 20 and an average finish of 15.75.
"We have to race like we've been racing and we've got to take what the weekend will give us," Almirola said. "When we have a top-20 car, we need to run top-20 with it. When we have a top-10 car, we need to run top-10 with it.
"I feel like we've done a pretty good job this year of maximizing our finishes. If we do that for the next 14 races, I think we'll have a legitimate shot to make the Chase on points."
While these teams have no margin of error to lose points, they also have no margin of error if they want to win a race. They often haven't shown enough speed to overcome a driving mistake or a pit-road miscue during an event.
Gordon said his team feels it has a strong chance to win at Daytona but feels a tick behind at other tracks.
"There is no reason why we can't win at those [restrictor-plate] tracks," Gordon said. "It seems like at the other tracks we are off a little bit [in] downforce and maybe even a little bit with power. That is unusual for us.
"We are very aware of it. I wouldn't call it urgency just a lot of hard work and focus on getting that turned around."
The others in Gordon's points situation seem to take a similar approach. None have felt so stout that they feel they will get into the Chase no sweat.
They feel they need to race the way they have raced this year at the very least. This is not the time to start changing strategies, though.
"The guys that have won are the ones that can take the risks," Newman said. "You put yourself in their group, you might have a chance and might not, which is to me no different than if you just do your thing."
In other words: No panic.
"I don't want to say it's too early because you're always points racing," Menard said. "You're always racing to win. It is not crunch time yet."