A ninth-place finish in a race in which he never threatened to lead is not up to Jeff Gordon's usual standards. But on Sunday, after having little more than an hour to practice following several qualifying woes, Gordon was happy to take a spot in the top 10 at Pocono Raceway. He is hopeful that it signals a journey back to the top of the standings.
"Improvement," he said, describing his run.
The trouble for Gordon started much earlier than Friday, when his crew unloaded the multi-colored No. 24 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. It all started about a month ago.
Gordon was ranked as high as second in the points race following a runner-up finish at Darlington, S.C. But the next weekend at Richmond,
Va., things took a turn for the worst. Gordon limped home in 39th place. He followed that up with a 30th-place effort in the Coca-Cola 600 in Concord, N.C., and a 39th-place finish at Dover, Del., after he and Tony Stewart made contact.
The downturn reflected in his rankings as he fell to third, fifth and finally, outside the top 10 to 11th after Dover.
The crew couldn't pinpoint just one problem. And meanwhile, it looked like others had figured out how to get their programs going.
"It's inevitable as the season goes along," Gordon said of other teams' closing the gap on the early contenders. "We may have gotten ahead of them during the offseason and the beginning of the season, but over time, the competition is going to close up and those guys are going to get closer to anybody who has an advantage."
But that certainly wasn't the cause for Gordon's slump. In Richmond, there was a wreck in front of him and as he tried to miss it Gordon ran too high and hit the wall. In Charlotte and Dover, Gordon was caught up in wrecks.
Some of it might have been avoidable had the car been handling better or had Gordon been higher in the running order. But the team hasn't dwelled on the what-ifs. And the competitors never stopped to enjoy Gordon's misfortunes, choosing instead to watch their backs in anticipation of the righting of the ship.
"Jeff is definitely going to come up," Stewart said before Sunday's race, just days after he and Gordon wrecked at Dover. "He'll be back in the top 10 after this week, there's no doubt in my mind about that. There are guys who have struggled early in this year. That's what happens when technology and the rules packages change so much. Some teams stumble on the combination right away and some take a lot longer to get caught up on what packages we need to be on."
Gordon thinks the bad start was more of a case of bad luck. But with Sunday's ninth-place finish, Gordon returned to ninth in the standings and is confident that the team is headed back in the right direction.
"Overall, I'm happy with the performance of this DuPont team," he said, "but we need to get some consistency on our side. Our goal each and every week is to lead laps and win if we have the chance. If we can't win, then finish in the top five. Our hope is that we can do that on a consistent basis."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.