Hendrick Motorsports began the day with two cars -- the team's heavyweights in pole-sitter Jeff Gordon and outside pole-sitter Jimmie Johnson -- at the front of the field. But by day's end, it was another frustrating day in what has been a frustrating two months for the organization.
Johnson limped home in 36th place and lost his lead in the points standings to Roush Racing driver Greg Biffle. What's worse for the Hendrick team, despite two additions to the field of drivers currently eligible for this season's playoffs, Jeff Gordon remains on the outside looking in after finishing 33rd.
Linkage problems on transmissions from Mid Valley Engineering were the struggle of the day, but for Gordon it was just the continuation of one of the worst slumps in his career.
In his last six races, Gordon has finished 30th or worse an astounding five times. This is a guy who in his last five seasons has not had more than six such finishes in an entire year. But after finishing 39th at Richmond International Raceway, 30th at Lowe's Motor Speedway, 39th at Dover Downs International Speedway, and 32nd at Michigan International Speedway, the four-time Cup champion dropped from second in the points standings to 12th.
On Friday, after turning a fast lap around the Sonoma road course, Gordon let out a brief exhale and let his mind wander upon thoughts of a turnaround at a track-type which he's proven dominant.
"This is definitely a place we enjoy coming to, no matter if we're coming off a win or a horrible day like we had at Michigan," Gordon said after winning the pole with a record qualifying time. "You know, I hate that we've come in here with that kind of pressure. We do need to get some things turned around. This is a track where we can get some things turned around, but you want to come in here just focusing on the race and that's what we've been trying to do all day."
That concentration was shot early on when the team experienced transmission problems. Gordon, who led the first 32 laps of the race, first noticed problems when eventual race-winner Tony Stewart passed him for the lead on lap 33 and he couldn't get into second gear. It didn't dampen his day then, though, because a caution came out and the team fixed the problem. Twice more it reappeared, though, and constant pitting and battling on the race track ruined his day.
The transmission linkage was the culprit, and Gordon said after the race that he was going to put in a vote to return to the old transmissions the team used to use.
"Probably the last time I ever run that transmission," he said. "We've won a lot of races with old faithful, you know, so I guess that's what we'll go back to. I guess it doesn't do us any good if we're faster if we don't make it to the end."
The team met after the race and after venting shortly decided to put the day in the rear-view. Gordon sorely hopes Sunday marks the end of his skid, but with Daytona on tap he knows the competition will be gunning for him and that he'd better get other issues plaguing the 24 squad in order.
"All I care about is getting our stuff going and getting ourselves to be in these races where we can put ourselves in contention to win," he said. "Right now we've got a lot of other things to get straight before we can even think about a championship."
It was transmission linkage problems for teammate Johnson, too, whose run of 12 weeks atop the standings came to an end. Johnson's drop in the rankings wasn't attributable to a string of subpar finishes, though. The driver of the No. 48 Chevy has only one sub-30 finish this year -- a 40th-place effort back at Richmond in May. Since then, he rode consistently among the top 10 until last week finishing 19th at Michigan -- a result which left him vulnerable for the passing in the standings.
Still, safely on the desirable side of the cutoff, which will occur just 10 races from now, Johnson wasn't too down after Sunday's road race.
"We'll just keep going," Johnson said. "Got to keep your eye on the ball. It's a long, long season."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.