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Gordon confident he's still the favorite to win the title

9/10/2007 - NASCAR

RICHMOND, Va. -- Jeff Gordon was trying to enjoy a night out in his part-time home of New York City two years ago when he ran into a couple of the drivers that qualified for the Chase for the Nextel Cup.

He doesn't remember much about the conversation, except he wished he was with them for the same reason.

"You always want to be in it," said Gordon, who missed the 10-race playoff that year. "When you're not in it you don't have a shot. Everybody, no matter what they say, wishes they were one of those 12 guys."

If anybody has a reason to be upset heading into this year's championship run it should be Gordon.

The 312-point lead he had over Tony Stewart during the first 26 races has turned into a 20-point deficit to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson.

NASCAR tweaked the system to start everybody in the Chase equal, and then award 10 bonus points for each win during the regular season. Johnson's win in Saturday night's race at Richmond International Raceway gave him two in a row and six overall.

Gordon is second with four wins.

But he's not upset.

"I've not been in it before," he said as dew settled over the three-quarter mile Richmond track. "I don't take this thing for granted. I'm excited not only that we're in the Chase, but the position we're in. Even though we're behind Jimmie, we really are a championship-caliber team.

"I'm extremely excited about the chance we have to get this thing done."

But if NASCAR tweaks the system again, which officials won't consider going until after this year's Chase concludes, Gordon would suggest giving the regular-season champion a bonus.

And not just because it would benefit him this year.

"I don't know about 20 or 30 [points], but at least 10," he said. "What's the incentive? There is none. I mean, I want to win races like anybody else. If you have a little bit of a points lead there isn't anything that comes with it. The bonus points would be fantastic."

Gordon had more than a little bit of a points lead. He was so far ahead that it would have taken a miracle for anybody to catch him under the pre-Chase format.

Had it not been for a few unfortunate incidents -- such as a spinout at Watkins Glen while he was leading with two laps remaining -- he easily could have had an even bigger lead.

He could have won on Saturday, leading a race-high 191 laps before settling for fourth when his car became tight late.

"The racer inside of me feels bad," Johnson said. "He's had an amazing first 26 races, but we all knew coming into the season it was going to be this way.

"We were able to maximize the seeding process on the 48 car and do everything we can to be a champion, but I do in the back of my mind feel something for him."

Gordon doesn't feel any animosity toward his Hendrick Motorsports teammate for being in this position. After all, he owns the car, which means he tops the owners' standings.

"They've done what they needed to do," Gordon said. "With the way points are this year it's about winning and being in the Chase. I still think we're more consistent over 10 races than anybody out there, not just the 48, and that's what is going to win us the championship."

Yes, Gordon still considers himself the favorite to win his fifth title.

His series-high 21 top-10 finishes and 15 top-5s suggest he should be, because consistency will count more than wins over the next 10 races.

Nobody is more focused than Gordon, who hasn't won a title since 2001 and never has won a title under the Chase format.

"Mentally, we're probably going to be pretty irritable to be around if you're anybody but our race team," he said. "We're really going to be focused on communicating on just making sure we do everything we possibly can.

"It's just a mental and physical focus you have to have these next 10 races. There's just certain guys and certain teams that elevate their game a notch when it's time to do it."

I've not been in it before. I don't take this thing for granted. I'm excited not only that we're in the Chase, but the position we're in. Even though we're behind Jimmie, we really are a championship-caliber team.

Jeff Gordon

Johnson certainly has shown that. He was ninth in points after a 39th-place finish at Indianapolis in late July. Since then he's had five top-5s and two wins in six races.

Both wins and three of the top-5s came after crew chief Chad Knaus returned from a six-race suspension.

"They're good," Gordon said. "You certainly can't take that for granted. Jimmie's [team has] obviously shown they're capable of [elevating his game]. That's the kind of race team we've got this year, and we're going to show that."

So don't feel sorry for Gordon because he lost his lead. Respect him for the way he's handled it.

Johnson does.

"Yeah, I really look at how Jeff has carried himself as these weeks have kind of closed down, and getting closer to his big points lead disappearing," he said. "I look at him and he's really doing a great job of representing what the sport is about and how we're going into the Chase."

That's because Gordon knows what it means to be in this position. He can't wait to be a part of Thursday's festivities in New York City, particularly because he'll be able to sleep in his own bed while the rest of the competitors stay in a hotel.

"Letterman is a couple of blocks from me," Gordon said. "I'll be able to just walk over there.

"It's really special to be in this thing. You find out how special it is when you do this whole thing with the other 11 drivers. The way NASCAR treats you, you feel like a champion before this thing ever starts."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.