Gordon feels need to stay in top 10

Updated: March 13, 2005, 7:00 PM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

When it comes to putting the past in the rear view mirror, not many are more disciplined than the No. 24 Chevy team and driver Jeff Gordon. He keeps a short memory, but a long list of lessons learned. So it isn't surprising that Gordon's last outing, a run cut four laps short thanks to a busted engine that sent him home with a 30th-place finish, is already out of mind.

What is a little surprising is the urgency this team already feels to remedy the direction it's moving in the points standings after dropping nine spots to 10th heading into this weekend's race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

"We need to contend for the win this weekend," crew chief Robbie Loomis says plainly.

Under NASCAR's playoff format, teams like Gordon's fail if they don't earn a berth for the 10-race championship playoff, so staying among the top 10 is a priority. And with the fierce competition at the Nextel Cup level now, teams scratch and claw to get up there fast and stay there.

"There's no question that there's more pressure to get in and stay in the top 10 with the (playoff format) and the number of teams that are capable of running in the top 10," Gordon said before this season began. "That puts a lot of importance on Daytona and coming out strong."

For Gordon, Daytona wasn't a problem. But after storming out of the gates with a victory in the Daytona 500, the engine failure two weeks ago at California Speedway nearly dropped him out of the top 10. And heading to Vegas knowing the team needs a strong finish to stay with the leaders isn't the most comforting prospect for Gordon, who -- despite having won at Vegas twice -- has generally struggled at this race track. He hasn't posted a top 10 in Vegas in his last three tries.

"We haven't had a good handle on the track since 2003 when we sat on the outside pole and led a lot of laps," said Loomis, whose driver qualified to start 12th on Friday after picking up time from his practice laps. "We tested here with the new rules package during the offseason and were pleased with the results.

Still, Gordon and Co. aren't concerned, particularly because they believe they've pinpointed the engine troubles and fixed them -- and they're coming off a solid testing session in Vegas over the off-season. "I think we're real confident," Gordon said. "I feel like we know where the (engine) issue was. We did a lot of testing on the dyno and stuff, here in this past week and a half. I was in the engine shop before I went on vacation and I know that they feel confident and I feel confident that we've got it figured out. "I feel that we've got the best engine department there is out here. They guys work so hard that when we do find a problem, we diagnose it and fix it. I feel like we're going to be in good shape engine-wise this weekend. I just approach it just like any other engine, it's not an issue -- it's just about making sure we get the power out of it and making the car work well." In testing, practices and qualifying runs this year, Gordon said he's felt the typical Hendrick engine power under his hood and believes it'll be back on Sunday. He adds that just because the engine failed two weeks ago doesn't mean that the team has lost any momentum. "I feel like we had a great run going at Fontana," he said. "We started deep in the field and worked our way up there. We got ourselves into second, pit stops were really coming on strong there. So, we're still carrying momentum. We had a good run even though we didn't finish it out." The 24 team gathered together at the shop after the California race. They spoke of putting the hiccup behind them, and they spoke of getting the nose back to the grindstone and banging out a rig that can win in Vegas. They also spoke, though, about putting things in perspective. While the increasing competition puts increasing pressure to stay in the top 10, this is only the third race of the year. If an engine is going to bust, better the first time the Cup Series hits California Speedway than the second time around in September.

"Every race is crucial, I feel like," Gordon said. "But I'd much rather have it happen early in the season or in the first 26 races than in those last 10."

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