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Struggling No. 24 team hoping test session at Lowe's produces some answers

9/23/2008 - NASCAR

CONCORD, N.C. -- Crew chief Steve Letarte had his head buried in a laptop computer loaded with numbers and charts during Tuesday's Sprint Cup test at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

He was looking for something -- anything -- that could give driver Jeff Gordon a better feel for the car and help him avoid his first winless season since 1993, his rookie year.

Letarte knows he has received much of the blame for what has been an average season for the four-time Cup champion. He also knows he's the same person who helped Gordon to one of his best seasons just a year ago.

So does team owner Rick Hendrick.

"He didn't go brain-dead," Hendrick said.

Letarte laughed and replied, "We'll find out."

The two-day session at Lowe's could play a role because five of the last eight races in the championship Chase are on 1.5-mile tracks. If Letarte and his driver can find that little something that has been missing, they might end the losing streak and become a title contender.

Gordon is eighth in points, 118 behind leader Carl Edwards heading into Sunday's race at Kansas Speedway.

"I predict Jeff will win a race before this is over," Hendrick said. "We're not out of it yet."

And if they are, he and Gordon made it clear it's not Letarte's fault.

"Steve is an amazing crew chief when you look at that umbrella that falls underneath him," Gordon said. "Whenever we're not performing, my fans seem to stay loyal to me, and I appreciate that.

"But I'm as much a part of this team and its performance as anybody else out there. If there's going to be criticisms, you know, I want it to come across the board."

Gordon believes Letarte has done an "amazing" job. He contends that the two have worked extremely well all season and that the communication is as good now as it was a year ago when they had six wins, 21 top-5s, 30 top-10s and seven poles.

"Unfortunately, we just haven't seen the results like we did last year," said Gordon, who has nine top-5s and 13 top-10s. "It's really easy to put aside or forget what we did last year, which to me was one of the best seasons I ever had in the Cup series. Looking at this year, just things haven't gone our way for whatever reason.

"But I believe [Steve's] the guy for the job, and he's a confident guy that does the job well. I hate that he gets the criticism."

Most cases in the sport, if the guy wins, it's his talent. And if he doesn't, it's the crew chief's fault. The crew chief kind of walks a plank by himself.

-- Team owner Rick Hendrick

That's the nature of the business. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn't running well, the fans blame crew chief Tony Eury Jr. Because Gordon has won four titles, people can't believe his lack of success this year is his fault.

"Most cases in the sport, if the guy wins, it's his talent," Hendrick said. "And if he doesn't, it's the crew chief's fault. The crew chief kind of walks a plank by himself."

The criticism could go away quickly if Gordon finds some answers at LMS.

"We've really been searching this year on the mile-and-a-halfs," Gordon said. "I feel like the testing that we've been doing … should pay off, or at least the things that we learn should transfer to Kansas better than any other track we go to."

And it's not as if Gordon has been horrible on the 1.5-mile tracks. Other than a 35th-place finish at Las Vegas and 43rd at Texas where crashes ended both days, he has run anywhere from third to 15th.

"I can say personally I've worked harder this year testing, working with the team at the racetrack, away from the racetrack, than I have in any other season that I've run in the Cup series," Gordon said. "The frustrating part is the results aren't showing for it."

But he's not blaming his crew chief or anybody else. He knows his team has the potential to do the same thing it did last season when he finished fifth at Kansas, then won the next two weeks at Talladega and Charlotte to keep the heat on teammate Jimmie Johnson through the final race of the Chase.

"The only way we're going to see the results is to continue to work hard and hope that we find something that really clicks," Gordon said. "And it's going to click for me and our team and … on the way that I want the car set up for the theories on how Steve wants to set up the cars.

"And that's what's going to make it all start to come together. We've got eight more races to go, and I know we can win some races before it's over."

Meanwhile, Letarte will keep his head buried in a computer.

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