- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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The good news for Jeff Gordon is that at least he made the Chase for the Nextel Cup this season. The bad news is that halfway through the 10-race run he's sitting in 10th place.
"I look back at all of our situations. There's always a solution. There's always something that you could have maybe foreseen and prevented."
-- Jeff Gordon
With 216 points between Gordon and leader Jeff Burton, the odds of a championship are long. Stranger things might have happened, but Gordon would need eight other drivers to falter in addition to Burton, so he's not looking for his fifth championship this season.
At this point, he just wants to salvage as many spots as he can while gunning for the win each time out, starting Sunday at the Subway 500 in Martinsville, Va.
"We basically just do everything that we can to experiment, try things [for next year], but win races," Gordon said. "We'd done the test a couple weeks ago to prepare for Martinsville that allows us to go to Martinsville and try something a little bit different, just to try to get ahead of the competition, to be better than we've been in the past. Even though Martinsville is a solid and pretty consistent track for us, we never stop trying to get better.
"If we were leading the points right now, maybe we wouldn't go that route, but we're not. Right now it's about experimenting as well as just putting solid races together, going off of what we learned all year, what we know, and also incorporating some new things to just learn for this season and next year."
With Jimmie Johnson (seventh) and Kyle Busch (ninth) also mired deep in the standings, it looks like Hendrick Motorsports will be able to split its focus between climbing in the standings and getting a jump on next year.
All three drivers run well at the track, with both Gordon and Johnson posting wins on the .526-mile paper-clip-shaped layout. Busch hasn't won, but finished ninth in this race a year ago and was fifth there in April.
"Martinsville is a tricky place. I've never qualified very well there, but have been able to come through the field pretty well," Busch said. "Last spring there was a green-white-checkered finish and I was up to second, but slipped in some oil dry and fell back to fifth, so we're certainly capable."
Busch's first race there in a Cup car didn't go as well, as he knocked in the radiator and eventually retired with a cooked engine as a result. Since then, he's quickly adapted to the touch that's needed at Martinsville.
"The biggest thing I've learned is how the groove moves around during the race," Busch said. "The track gets a ring of rubber buildup around it -- which is usually one groove out from the bottom of the track -- and when your tires get into that groove, it shoots you out toward the wall. The best thing to do is to try to keep under it or straddle it to keep yourself in line. It creates a situation as a driver where not only do you have to play defense, but you have to play offense as well."
Luck also plays a bigger role than usual at Martinsville, as it's easy to get caught up in a wreck. Although not quite as crazy as a race at Bristol due to the flatter nature of Martinsville, wrecks still occur.
Gordon's had his share of tough luck thus far, suffering fuel pump issues at Kansas, getting in an accident at Talladega and losing the engine at Charlotte.
Still, he doesn't put a lot of stock in "luck" as an explanation when things go well or when they turn sour. He said a team helps make its luck by being in the right place at the right time, or by screwing up and being in a position where something's more likely to go wrong.
"I look back at all of our situations. There's always a solution. There's always something that you could have maybe foreseen and prevented," Gordon said. "That's what we try to do. I think it's one of the things we do best at Hendrick Motorsports is that we when find a problem, we get to the bottom of it, try to make sure it doesn't happen again.
"All the issues that we've had in the Chase are issues we've never had before. So it's kind of hard to foresee those things. You know, I still look at them and say that they could have been prevented. Like the situation at Talladega, I made -- I was leading the race and I chose the wrong lane to block, got shuffled back. We came in and made a pit stop. We ended up getting back farther in the field than I felt like we should have, [then we] got caught up in the Big One."
Gordon said a strong qualifying run and keeping that track position is one way to prevent bad luck. Hard work is another. All told, though, he refuses to blame his spot in the standings simply on "bad luck."
"I think if you look at the guys that are up front in the Chase, I think they've prepared themselves very well," Gordon said. "You can call it luck or preparation, but that's the way I like to lean on it."
Consecutive third-place finishes at New Hampshire and Dover to start the Chase had Gordon feeling good about his team and its chances of winning it all. Then came Kansas, and things went downhill in a hurry.
He admits a bad run eats into a team's confidence, increasing the pressure to bounce back right away. When that didn't happen at Talladega, the pressure was really on at Charlotte. Now, though, the pressure is off.
"I said all along, you don't have to be dominant to win this championship, you just got to be consistent. If you look at the guys that are up front, Burton has won a race, but other than that, he has not been super spectacular," Gordon said. "But they've been solid all the way to the checkered flag, and that's what it takes. That's what we haven't been able to do.
"I think we've performed well enough to win the championship this year. But [it] doesn't matter how well you perform if you don't finish it off at the end of the day. Right now at this point, we just kind of go out there and relax and have fun and just try to turn things around and put the best effort we can. No matter what we do, I don't think it's going to win the championship."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com.
Jeff Gordon made the Chase, but he isn't likely to win the title. What's he going to do now? Experiment for next year, writes Mark Ashenfelter.