Gordon not backing down from fight

10/2/2009 - NASCAR

Here's Jeff Gordon in the eighth autumn of his quest for a fifth championship, slipping slightly at the outset of the Chase while two of his teammates, Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson, are off to optimal starts.

So again, already, it doesn't look good for Gordon -- except to Gordon.

Sometimes you have to wonder how he keeps his chin up, struggling for this fifth title that has eluded him for as long as it took to amass his first four, seven years, from 1995 to 2001.

But somehow he does, and then some, not just hopeful but optimistic that his big run of wins -- on the six intermediate tracks in the eight remaining races of the Chase -- could easily start as early as Sunday at Kansas City.

It's not easy on his psyche that "the first two don't go the way you'd like them to [15th at New Hampshire, sixth at Dover in the past two weeks] … and then your teammates are up there winning the first two races.

"It's very frustrating," he said during a teleconference Tuesday, when I asked how much it wears on him. Yet his voice was matter of fact, without a hint of the whine his old detractors used to claim to hear, back when he was called "Wonder Boy" and winning everything in sight.

The disheartenment conceded with just a ricochet of admission, here came the optimism back, first in drops, then in torrents.

"It's frustrating that we are not living up to our full potential," he said.

The idea that his 24 team has the potential to run consistently with the 5 of Martin and the 48 of Johnson is optimistic in itself, based on performances this year; Martin has five wins, Johnson four and Gordon one.

"But at the same time, we are only two races in [to the 10 playoff races]," Gordon said.

While Martin and Johnson have maintained the first two berths in the Chase, Gordon has slipped from sixth seed to eighth place, from 30 points behind leader Martin to 122 back.

He acknowledged that "if those guys [Martin and Johnson] continue the way they are, we have got to win to gain points on them.

"And that's certainly a lot to ask for. But in my opinion, it's still doable."

That's because of the intermediate tracks, which include 2-mile California but which he groups as "the mile and a halfs" because there are five of those remaining.

Kansas Speedway is the first.

"I think our chances [there] are really good," he said. "I've been really excited about the mile and a halfs. … I feel like that's something that we have really done a great job with improving from last season, and I feel like that's where this championship can really get turned around for us."

His only win this season came in April at Texas Motor Speedway, a place he'd largely dreaded in the past because he'd never won there. Now he "can't wait to get back there," he said, for the eighth round of the Chase on Nov. 8.

There are but two non-intermediate tracks left if you keep California in the intermediate column.

There's the 2.66-mile casino at Talladega, Ala., where plate racing makes for a crapshoot but which "is a great track for us," he said, with the credibility of six career wins there, second only to the late Dale Earnhardt's 10. Martin by contrast loathes Talledega, calling racing there "The Lotto." And Johnson has but one win there.

Then there's the matter of the intrasquad duel between Gordon and Johnson at NASCAR's tiniest track, the half-mile at Martinsville, Va. Johnson has the current upper hand, having won five of the past six races there. But Gordon has more career wins there, 7-5, and still is Johnson's primary rival every time they unload the cars there.

"The only track that I see that we have to make big gains is [flat, 1-mile] Phoenix," Gordon said. "I feel like all the other tracks, we are very capable."

Capable … potential … Gordon's fan base seems weary of such words, starved for results, judging from the e-mail I get. Again, they're questioning his crew chief, Steve Letarte.

"You can say whatever you want to say," Gordon countered at my mention of that. "I feel like this year we have had some of the best cars that we have had in a long time. I give Steve a lot of credit for that. There's been times when our pit crew has been as solid as they have ever been, and I give Steve and that pit crew a lot of credit."

Letarte isn't getting the acclaim of Martin's Alan Gustafson or Johnson's Chad Knaus, maestro of the Chase. But Letarte has the unenviable task of finding the right feel for Gordon, who at 38 has struggled chronically to get the right feel in the new car.

"I can't change my driving style -- at this point in my career, I can't change that," Gordon said. "I have a certain feel and a balance that I'm looking for out there in the car, versus Jimmie, Mark and [Dale Earnhardt] Junior [whose struggle this year has kept Gordon's results far from the bottom of the four-driver Hendrick Motorsports team]."

Johnson, 34, always has adapted to whatever Knaus puts under him. Martin, at 50, is going through his second youth, leaving the setups entirely to Gustafson. Letarte just keeps on tweaking for Gordon.

"You go win Texas like we did earlier in the year, and we lead the points, and everybody praises [Letarte] and says how amazing he is," Gordon said. "Same for me, and then you get into the Chase and things don't go our way, it's easy to say, 'Oh, well, this isn't the right combination' … and everybody points fingers.

"But that doesn't happen within the organization, and that's why we still have a shot at this championship."

Seems like whenever Gordon is running in the top five in midrace, you just don't have the sense that he can hang in and close the deal on a win the way he used to. Sometimes you wonder about Gordon's own desire, considering his life outside racing -- his family, and the career potential he has beyond NASCAR, especially in TV and, he has hinted, a management role with Hendrick.

But the thing is, he has never won a championship under the Chase format, although he has made five of the six playoffs. The closest he came was in 2007, when "we did as great of a job as we can do, and we still lost," to Johnson, by 77 points.

And so, "I'm as hungry and as eager as I've ever been to get the championship, because it's something I feel like I've never accomplished and it's something we desperately want to do," Gordon said.

There is an echo of the old, youthful hunger. And there'd better be, if he is to have a chance.

For Gordon to run down and beat his protégé Johnson and the forever-young Martin, it might very well take the second coming of the Wonder Boy of yore.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.