Long winless streak this season doesn't mean Gordon's slipping

8/2/2008 - NASCAR

LONG POND, Pa. -- Are Jeff Gordon's best days behind him?

It's time to ask that question if you haven't already.

Gordon is winless so far in 2008 and only once in his remarkable career has he gone this far into a season without posting a victory. That was six years ago.

"It's frustrating, but not so much that we haven't won a race," Gordon said. "To me, it's more frustrating that we weren't competitive to win a race earlier. I really feel like over the last month, we've made some big gains."

Gordon turns 37 on Monday, certainly not over the hill for a Sprint Cup driver, especially when we're talking about one of the top-five racers ever to sit in a stock car, but many of his rivals over the last 15 years have moved on.

"I'm getting to where I can count on one hand the guys that I started racing with," Gordon said. "There's just not a lot of guys out here from when I started. So that makes you feel a little bit older."

Does older mean not as good? One man who races against Gordon every week doesn't think so.

"I think Jeff is still the best driver in the series," Clint Bowyer said. "He has been for a long time and I don't think he's lost a thing. He's still as good as he ever was, but I do think the competition has caught up to him."

Bowyer believes the only thing that has changed is the fact that more drivers today are racing at Gordon's skill level.

Gordon's fourth and last championship was seven years ago. He has finished behind his teammate Jimmie Johnson for five consecutive seasons. Since the beginning of the 2003 season, Johnson has 33 victories. Gordon has 20.

However, those statistics don't tell everything you need to know. Gordon would have won two more championships in the last four years (2004 and 2007) without the Chase playoff system.

After missing the Chase in 2005 and finishing sixth in 2006, Gordon won six times in 2007. He posted 30 top-10s in 36 races in the No. 24 Chevrolet, six more than Johnson, who won his second consecutive Cup title.

"This points system has hurt Jeff," Bowyer said. "The series is different now than it was when he was dominating. But if you look next to you during a race and you see that 24 car, you know you've got your hands full."

Gordon ranks sixth in the standings entering Sunday's race at Pocono (2 p.m. ET, ESPN), the only man in the top six who hasn't won a race.

But Hendrick Motorsports has taken a big step forward in recent weeks. Johnson, who won last week at Indianapolis, starts on the pole for Sunday's race and Gordon, who starts fourth, finished fifth last weekend.

"I'm excited to see where these gains put us as far as being in position to win some races," Gordon said. "We need a couple more weeks of some solid runs like we've been having. I really feel like this team is starting to make some ground."

But once again, he trails his teammate.

Johnson's No. 48 Chevy team has shown the most improvement among the Hendrick contingent. Johnson has six top-10s in the last eight races. Gordon has one top-10 in the last four races.

I certainly have no regrets. I've accomplished more than I thought I ever would. I'm not sitting here going, 'Boy, I wish I was 21 again.' I'm pretty happy with where things are.

-- Jeff Gordon

Gordon believes that's about to change. He hopes to win a couple of times in the next six races to gain some ground on points leader Kyle Busch before the Chase begins. Each victory is worth 10 bonus points, so Gordon would start the playoff 70 points behind Busch if the Chase started today.

"I'm worried about the bonus points," Gordon said. "When you [start the Chase] 20, 30 or 70 points behind other guys, that's tough to overcome. I think we can win some races in the Chase, but to go out there and outperform those guys every weekend and make up all those points is tough to do."

Gordon is only four victories away from passing Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison for third on the all-time wins list. Four more victories will give him 85 for his career, only 20 shy of David Pearson in second place. Gordon's place among the greats is assured.

"I like the amount of respect I have and the experience I've been able to gain over the years," Gordon said. "I certainly have no regrets. I've accomplished more than I thought I ever would. I'm not sitting here going, 'Boy, I wish I was 21 again.' I'm pretty happy with where things are."

Gordon still is capable of winning championships and still capable of winning races on any given Sunday. But even Gordon admits a lot more guys are just as capable of doing it as he is.

"That's alright," he said. "Things are changing. We've got a lot of young kids that are in this sport now. I was one at one time. As long as you continue to bring young talent into this sport I think it's a great thing. I'll deal with where I stand."

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