Qualifying run was fun, but race is key

Updated: July 24, 2004, 8:05 PM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

Jeff Gordon
Gordon
This time, qualifying meant something. At the very least, it was a little more interesting than usual.

Well, for everybody except Jeff Gordon, that is.

The four-time champ owns many of NASCAR's modern-era records. On Friday, he tried for one more. Going into this weekend's race at New Hampshire International Speedway, Gordon had won four consecutive pole positions. With one more on Friday, he would have tied Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough at five.

Instead, though, Gordon had to go out first and wound up having a tough run that will force him to start 24th on Sunday in the Siemens 300.

"It didn't help us drawing the number one spot but we already have a problem,'' Gordon said. "We were just off. We can't really seem to put our finger on it. We just can't get comfortable, and that's certainly not a good lap.''

But as much as he likes records, he's more concerned with championships. And qualifying doesn't count toward points -- so Gordon will be working harder for the victory than he did for the pole.

"This streak is pretty amazing considering how competitive our sport is right now," Gordon said before his qualifying attempt Friday. "It will be tough because this track is such a challenging, flat track."

Historically, Gordon has qualified well at Loudon, N.H. He has three pole positions at the track and an average starting spot of just over ninth.

Last season, though, he followed up with two disappointing finishes. This year, though the record would have been nice, he's more concerned with fixing the finish.

In last year's two events at New Hampshire, Gordon finished 24th and 19th, respectively. Each time, though, he thought he had a top-five (if not Victory Lane-worthy) car.

"I thought we had the car to beat during the first event last year," Gordon said. "In fact, it was one of the best cars I've ever had here. We didn't pit with about 100 to go because we weren't in our fuel window, yet. Other teams did pit, and many of them made it to the end.

"When we made our final stop, I restarted so deep in the field that I used up my car battling for 20th."

That was last summer. In the September event, Gordon was running second when he pitted to top off on fuel on lap 276. After most cars had pitted, Gordon once again moved up to second.

He tailed teammate Jimmie Johnson down the stretch and, though he admits Johnson's car was strong, hoped to make a run on the car which he actually co-owns. Then, with two laps remaining, he ran out of gas. He finished one lap down after coasting onto pit road on the white flag lap.

"Those two races were disappointing, but hopefully we've learned from them," Gordon said. "We haven't had the finishes we would have liked here recently, and we need to turn that around."

He's confident that he can do it, too. In eight events from 1997 to 2001 at the 1.058-mile track, Gordon won two times and finished no worse than sixth. Although his recent attempts aren't as stellar, Gordon believes the team is due for a New England rebound.

With three wins, eight top-fives and 10 top-10's in 18 starts at Loudon, as well as 1,046 laps led (more than any other driver), Gordon knows he can excel at this race track.

"There are a lot of ups and downs in our sport," Gordon said. "Right now, we're riding the 'qualifying wave' for all it's worth. As for racing at NHIS, I guess we found the wave we were looking for.

"We just need to ride it to the end this time."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.

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