Gordon's consistency, Busch's late kick tangling
Las Vegas books, not always the best place to go but generally savvy nonetheless, immediately tabbed four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon as the man to beat.
And last Sunday in the MBNA America 400 at Dover International Speedway, Gordon showed why: He didn't win the race, but he finished third despite an ornery car. He has the ability to tame the No. 24 when it isn't at its best, buying his team time to fix it during the race, and that's why he's in the points lead heading to Talladega.
With that top-five finish Sunday, Gordon vaulted into the lead, though his margin is tenuous with a streaking Kurt Busch just one point behind. Still, Gordon was built for this type of championship chase -- one manufactured to be the tightest ever and one that will require poise and confidence.
"We made big gains for sure," Gordon said. "I'm real proud of these guys for that effort. We had great pit stops. We just never gave up on it. Early on, I'll tell you what, I wouldn't have given us a shot at a top 20. We kept fighting on it, and fighting with the car, and we finally got it pretty decent there and got some good track position.
"I'm really proud of Robbie (Loomis, crew chief) and all the guys on this DuPont Chevrolet. That's the type of effort it's going to take for us to win this championship."
Gordon and Co. have displayed this type of effort before. That's why, when the car was pulling and pushing and whining and crying, Gordon's team kept calm when the driver began to complain. At the same time, Gordon kept his cool behind the wheel.
At one point, he ran out of words to describe how badly his rig was driving. Mind you, he still had it in eighth place.
And while Gordon kept the ill-handling car up front, his team worked furiously to figure out how to make it run a little smoother. By day's end, that mission was accomplished. Gordon had followed up a seventh-place effort from the week before at Loudon, N.H., with a third-place effort that's essential to one's Chase hopes.
"Top fives, what more can you ask for than top fives every weekend?" Gordon said. "That would do it. ... You can afford to have a bad weekend if you can come back and dominate ... Other than that, I think it's absolutely about consistency.
"Ten races are a lot of races believe it or not. We finished seventh last week, third this week and we're leading the points right now. That pretty much says it right there."
Well, it almost sums it up. Sure, Gordon is the favorite because his team has got what it takes. These are the guys (for the most part) who won a title in 2001. And Gordon does have those four Cup championships, proving he knows how to win.
But at Dover, he got a bit of an assist from an on-comer. Kurt Busch has pulled a late-season run before. Recall 2002. While Tony Stewart, the king of late-season runs, and Mark Martin staged a tight battle for the crown, Busch shot from 12th to third in a matter of 10 races. That's right: 10 races, and he'd climbed nine spots.
And Busch is second in the points race right now, trailing Gordon by one point. If he'd led just one lap at Dover, the five bonus points would have him ahead of Gordon right now, proving the closeness of this battle.
"It was a great run for us," Busch said. "The Roush/Yates engine pulled well down the straightaway, we just missed the handle to balance the car out for a win. It's just a good day for us to finish where we did and be second in points. It's a great start to our chase for the Cup."
Busch said he isn't going to focus too much on the name of the guy in front of him. After all, there are some pretty talented guys right behind him. Anybody's got a shot under this points system. He's just happy to be one of them.
"We need to do what we did (Sunday)," he said. "Top five, top three. That's what it'll take."
Looming on the schedule, though, is Talladega Superspeedway -- a restrictor plate track where every driver enters wondering when the big wreck will occur, where on the track it will be and how many will be caught up in it.
The Big One is not discriminating. It doesn't care who's racing for the title. Thus, drivers like Busch have voiced some concern.
Which brings us back to Gordon. He's no more worried about 'Dega than he is the tight points race.
"We've won the last couple of restrictor plate races, so we feel pretty good about it," he said. "It's always the case when you go to Talladega and Daytona and you're drafting in restrictor plate racing. There's always that risk that something like that can happen. I think you got to approach every race weekend the same and get all that you can get."
Gordon and Loomis are preaching consistency to the team. And when it comes to consistency, nobody has been better. With 20 top-10 finishes, nobody has managed to be up front more at the end.
"Your chances of this championship depend on every weekend's finish," he said. "The intensity level is just going to increase after every race and the pressure is going to increase. You're just going to have to kind of wait it out and see where you end up.
"I still think you have to be consistent week in and week out and put solid finishes together. Wins are certainly important and we're trying to get those -- but if we can't, we get the next best thing."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.