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Points overhaul gives Gordon shot

7/8/2004

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In any other season, Jeff Gordon would be a long shot to win the championship.

But under NASCAR's new points system, Gordon is a legitimate
threat. After back-to-back victories the past two weeks, he might
even be the top contender.

Coming off dominating wins on two very different racetracks --
the windy road course at Sonoma and the superspeedway at Daytona --
Gordon headed into Sunday's race in Chicago in third place in the
standings, 232 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson.

Making up that kind of ground would have been a struggle under
the old points system. But this year, NASCAR will reset the field
with ten races to go and all drivers in the top 10 will run for the
championship.

"If you're leading, you hate this system. And if you're way
back, you love it,'' Gordon said. "It's going to be extremely
interesting as to how it all turns out over the final 10 because at
that point, basically everything you did all year long is a wash.

"You'd just better hope that your momentum and the experiences
you've had are the payoff and you have that in those last 10.''

Johnson, Gordon's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, has not
wavered in his dislike for the new points system.

And why should he? He'll have worked hard for 26 races to put
himself in position to win his first NASCAR championship. Then,
just when it's within his reach, he'll have Gordon bearing down on
him in pursuit of his fifth title.

It could be a strain on the four-year-old relationship that
began when Gordon became Johnson's mentor, friend and co-owner of
Johnson's car.

"It will be different for us,'' Johnson said. "Obviously, we
have raced against each other for wins and competed at that level,
but a championship will be a whole new thing.''

Because the field will be reset, it's possible any of the
drivers eligible for the final 10-race shootout could win the
title. But garage insiders already have an idea on how it might
play out.

"I think the two Hendrick cars have a really good chance of
finishing 1-2 in the championship,'' said car owner Ray Evernham,
who won three championships as Gordon's crew chief. "Jimmie and
Jeff both look like they can make a run at it.''

Until recently, Gordon was just trying to keep up with Johnson.
Although he has a series-high four victories and won
back-to-back races in April at Talladega and California Speedway,
the No. 24 team faltered with horrible runs in Charlotte and Dover.

The Charlotte race was the low point of the season. Gordon
started third, but the car was never good and they finished 30th,
seven laps down from race-winner Johnson.

"Charlotte lit a fire under us,'' he said. "We had a miserable
day and embarrassed ourselves and Rick Hendrick and our sponsors.
We've been on a mission ever since.''

The rebound began in mid-June at Michigan, when Gordon won the
pole and led 81 of the first 88 laps until his engine blew. Despite
his 38th-place finish, Gordon showed he was back.

He's won two races since then, starting from the pole each time
for three consecutive front-row spots.

"I tell you what, it makes me feel pretty darn good right now,
that's for sure,'' Gordon said. "What a way to get momentum -- to
be strong week-in and week-out, on totally different types of
tracks.''

Now he heads to Chicago, one of just four tracks on the circuit
where Gordon has yet to win. Despite his failure to reach Victory
Lane there, Gordon has two top-fives and an average finish of 7.6
in three starts at the 1.5-mile speedway.

Gordon, who needs just one more win to tie Cale Yarborough for
third on Nextel Cup's modern-era list with 69 victories, would love
for it to come at Chicago.

"It would be nice to win at a track that we haven't won on
yet,'' he said. "It's a cool statistic, but that's not my goal.

"My goal is to get better everywhere we go, try to win every
race and, ultimately, win the championship. Winning at a track
we've never won on would be icing on the cake.''