Commentary

Gordon's 30-point deficit is bigger than it looks with history as a guide

Jeff Gordon's 30-point deficit may not seem like a lot, but a look back at history shows few drivers have come back to win the title in the final two races of the season, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: November 6, 2007, 3:56 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Whatever little advantage Jeff Gordon has at Phoenix, where he won in April, he needs it now. History tells us he's in a bad place, pointswise.

Gordon is 30 points behind teammate Jimmie Johnson with two races remaining in the 2007 Nextel Cup season.

It doesn't sound like much, but moving from second to first in the standings hasn't happened often through the years.

Since the modern era began in 1975, only twice has a driver overcome a deficit of 30 points or more with two races to go.

The last time was 15 years ago when the late Alan Kulwicki was third in the standings, 80 points behind leader Bill Elliott and 70 behind Davey Allison with two races left.

Kulwicki was 30 points behind Allison heading into the season finale, but rallied to win the title.

The only other time it happened was 1990. Dale Earnhardt was 45 points behind Mark Martin with two to go. Earnhardt won the championship by 26 points.

Only one other time has a driver come from behind to win the title in the final race. Richard Petty was two points behind Darrell Waltrip on the last day in 1979, but Petty won the championship.

What It Takes To Win The Chase

Jimmie Johnson

Johnson

Déjà vu? In 2006, Jimmie Johnson took over the Chase lead with two races left in the season en route to winning his first Cup title. This year, he takes a larger points lead to Phoenix, and only five other drivers are still in contention for the Nextel Cup championship.

Jeff Gordon is the closest competitor but will be challenged in his attempt to retake the lead, considering how well Johnson has raced lately. Gordon could win at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami (the final two races) and still not win the title.

Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart are still alive mathematically. However, they need a monumental collapse by Johnson, in addition to gaining the maximum points in the last two events, to have a chance to win the Chase.

The following scenarios show how each driver could finish ahead of Johnson in the final two races (each scenario holds true regardless of whether Johnson leads a lap in each race, unless otherwise specified):

Chase Chances
1. Jimmie Johnson Chase leader
2. Jeff Gordon
(-30 points)
If he finishes nine places better than Johnson in both of the next two races, or if he wins out and leads the most laps in each event
3. Clint Bowyer
(-181)
If he wins out and leads the most laps in each event, and Johnson averages a 22nd-place finish or worse
4. Kyle Busch
(-339)
If he wins out and leads the most laps in each event, and Johnson does not start one race and finishes 40th or worse in the other race
5. Carl Edwards
(-357)
If he wins out and leads the most laps in each event, and Johnson does not start the final two races
6. Tony Stewart
(-373)
If he wins out and leads the most laps in each event, and Johnson does not start the final two races
Drivers 7-12 Eliminated from championship contention

Those aren't good odds for Gordon, but we need to point out a few things. In 13 of those 32 seasons, the champ won by more than 100 points, so there wasn't any battle down the stretch.

Here are three examples of close championship years where the leader held on at the end:

  • Cale Yarborough was 29 points behind Earnhardt entering the final race of 1980, but Earnhardt won the title by 19 points.
  • Bobby Alison was 22 points behind Waltrip in 1982, but Allison finished 16th in the last race and Waltrip was third to win the championship by 62 points.
  • In 2004, the first year of the Chase, Kurt Busch was 18 points ahead of Johnson and 21 ahead of Gordon entering the last race, but Busch won the title by eight points over Johnson.

One other little thing could help Gordon overcome history. A victory now is worth 10 more points than it was in all these examples, so a driver can gain more ground in a close points race.

He also can lose more ground, which is the reason Gordon finds himself 30 points back. Johnson has won the last three races.

How it could be over early
Johnson clinching the title this weekend in Phoenix is NASCAR's worst-case scenario.

No one wants to see the title decided before the last race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It isn't likely, but it is a remote possibility.

Johnson would clinch if he gains 131 points on Gordon in the Checker's Auto Parts 500 Sunday (2 p.m. ET, ABC), assuming Johnson starts the last race.

If Gordon blows an engine and finishes last at Phoenix, Johnson would have to finish fourth or better (if he led a lap) to win the championship.

If Johnson wins the race and leads the most laps, he would clinch if Gordon finishes 35th or worse and doesn't lead a lap.

American open-wheel world
Champ Car's 2008 schedule isn't exactly heavy on U.S. events. Only six of 14 races take place in the U.S. The last one is Aug. 10 at Road America in Wisconsin.

That's right, there's no U.S. race past the second weekend of August. The final three races on the schedule are in Holland, Australia and Mexico.

Champ Car also doesn't have any East Coast events. The only two U.S. events east of the Mississippi are Cleveland and Road America.

Meanwhile, the IndyCar Series is enjoying tons of national pub with Helio Castroneves in the "Dancing With The Stars" competition.

Millions of people who never have watched an IndyCar Series race have learned that Castroneves is a fun guy with a great personality, and some of those folks may tune in to watch a race next season just to see Helio.

As for Champ Car, its four-time champion, Sebastien Bourdais, is moving on to Formula One. Champ Car's only marketable name at this point is Graham Rahal, Bobby's son.

How long before Graham joins his father's IndyCar team, or at least races in the Indy 500?

Schumacher makes history
Tony Schumacher has joined an exclusive club by winning his fourth consecutive NHRA Top Fuel title.

Only three other racers in NHRA history have won four consecutive championships: Funny Car legend John Force (10) and Pro Stock drivers Bob Glidden (5) and the late Lee Shepherd (4).

But Schumacher is the first to do it in Top Fuel. And he did it by coming from behind and earning the title in the last round of the final event in the last two seasons.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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