- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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FORT WORTH, Texas -- When it comes to racing at Texas Motor Speedway, Jeff Gordon is tired of being the bridesmaid. Come Sunday's Samsung/Radio Shack 500, he wants to finally be the best man.
Gordon may indeed have 64 victories in his Cup career, but the one place the four-time champion has failed to master has been the 1.5-mile TMS layout. But after finishing fifth, second and third in his last three starts here, he said Saturday that it's time for him to take the checkered flag.
"We're ready, man, we're ready to get us a victory here," said Gordon, who will start ninth on Sunday. "We've been close the last few years. I really enjoy this place."
Ironically, even though he's never won at TMS, Gordon is tied with Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte and Mark Martin for most career finishes in the top-five, each with three apiece, even though Gordon and Labonte, who sits on the pole for Sunday's race, are the only drivers in that group who remain winless here.
Gordon's recent strong finishes are in marked contrast to his first four outings. He qualified second for the inaugural race in 1997, only to finish 30th. He started 17th and finished 31st the following year, and then suffered cracked and bruised ribs in a crash during the 1999 event that saw him finish uncharacteristically last in the 43-car field (followed up by finishing a mediocre 25th in 2000).
But since finishing ninth in 2001, Gordon has been methodically building toward his ultimate goal: winning at Texas and taking home its unique winner's trophy, which is made from a pair of the finest cowboy boots you'll find in the Lone Star State.
"I don't have many pair of cowboy boots, but I'd be more than happy to take a pair home with me," Gordon said with a broad smile. "Even though I had some tough times here in the early going, I've always felt like we had (good) cars, and the track has something about it that I like when I put the car out there on the track. So hopefully we can get that first one here this weekend."
Gordon comes into Sunday's race still trying to make up for the devastating crash and resulting 41st-place finish at Darlington two weeks ago. That finish was extremely costly, dropping him from fifth to 13th place in one fell swoop. He was able to regain one position in the standings, moving up to his current 12th spot, after qualifying on the outside pole and finishing ninth last Sunday at Bristol.
But a strong finish Sunday will go a long way toward moving him back in the top-five direction. The trick will be mastering TMS's infamous narrow racing groove. Even though TMS is hosting its eighth Cup event on Sunday, it still has not been able to produce much in the way of a second racing groove through the turns, forcing most drivers to stay low and near the white track bottom stripe.
"I don't think there's going to be enough drop-off, personally, for us to see a second groove open up," Gordon said. "Right now, I think we need less downforce and still softer yet tires. If you keep your car on that white line, you're going to have a tough time getting passed.
"When we first got here, they had problems with drainage and the narrow groove. They've definitely done some things to widen the groove out. It's a nice racetrack. It's beautifully smooth. It's unfortunate that it hasn't opened up enough to get an outside groove working, and I hope it does on the longer runs here on Sunday.
"Anything we can do to get rubber outside, the turns will be good. But it just seems to be one of those tracks that really likes for you to be right around the bottom. Right now, I really like the track. The only problem I have with this track is it doesn't have soft walls. And I think that as many tracks are putting them up, there's no reason why this track, as fast as we're going here, doesn't have them. I'm a little concerned with Bruton's (Speedway Motorsports Inc. majority owner Bruton Smith) tracks, why they don't have them."
Texas has been at the forefront of lobbying NASCAR to play host to two Cup races each year, but still only has one on its dance card. Recent talk reportedly has NASCAR considering not only taking away some races from existing tracks, but also the possibility of eliminating the Bud Shootout and Nextel All-Star Challenge non-points events as a way to squeeze two more events onto the Cup schedule.
"I don't know if they have (hit a maximum) but I know I have," Gordon said. "They're going to do whatever they want to do, but as far as I'm concerned, we do not need to be adding races until we take away races from other tracks. I look at it from a testing standpoint, from a sponsor commitment standpoint, from a team standpoint and travel that these guys do. If they cut testing out, then maybe.
"It'd be a shame (to cut the Bud Shootout or Nextel Challenge) because those are fun events and the fans, I think, really enjoy them, and we enjoy them, too, but that might not be a bad idea."
After Sunday's race, Nextel Cup drivers and team members get a welcome week off before the series resumes on the weekend of April 18 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. Given all the conflict between several drivers at Bristol last week -- including Jamie McMurray, Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and others, Gordon is hoping most of the bad blood will have disappeared by then, especially considering he is a five-time winner at the .526-mile track.
"I think by then people forget about it, but (Martinsville) is a short track, so (emotions and tempers) flare back up," Gordon said. "Short tracks are just the types of tracks and races that it's tight, it's hard to pass and you're going to get easily frustrated. I think your level of calmness depends on how your car is handling, the position you're out on the track.
"At Martinsville, we've had great handling race cars, have had great track position and I've been able to stay calm, not use up the brakes, not use up the tires, and hopefully we can go back there and qualify good again."
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.
4dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz