- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Jeff Gordon never thought it would come to this. How could he? After all, he's finished inside the top five in points in eight of 12 seasons entering 2005 and has been in the top 10 every year except his rookie campaign of 1993.
That year, Gordon showed immense promise -- along with the crumpled sheet metal that defines many a rookie season. After finishing eighth the following season, he then finished first or second the next four years before slipping all the way to sixth in '99, a year notable for the late-season departure of crew chief and mentor Ray Evernham.
Robbie Loomis came aboard for 2000 and Gordon dropped to ninth in points despite winning three races. His fourth championship followed in '01 and he finished fourth, fourth and third the last three years.
So how is it that Gordon currently finds himself on the outside looking in with one race left to settle which 10 drivers will make the Chase for the Nextel Cup?
How, in a year in which he won the Daytona 500, has Gordon seemingly slipped so far, so fast?
Sure, he's just 30 points out of 10th heading into this weekend's cutoff race in Richmond, Va., but closing that gap is easier said than done.
"It's certainly going to be a very interesting weekend for us and for a lot of other guys," Gordon says. "We're looking forward to it. I know a lot of interest is going to be there. I didn't want to be in this position, but now I'm here and we're going to make the most of it."
Gordon, though, is far from alone. Eleventh-place Ryan Newman is just one point behind 10th-place Jamie McMurray, meaning both drivers have everything on the line Saturday night. As does Matt Kenseth in ninth and 13th-place Elliott Sadler. Kenseth is just 10 points ahead of McMurray, while Sadler is 52 points out of 10th.
A little luck here or there can shake any of those drivers in or out of the top 10. Carl Edwards, in eighth, has a bit of a cushion as he needs to finish 19th or better to secure his spot in the Chase.
All eyes, though, will be on Gordon. Sure, Kenseth's won a championship, but with Dale Earnhardt Jr. already out of the mix, the only active four-time champion will be scrutinized at every turn.
Heck, even his car owner, Rick Hendrick, admitted after teammate Kyle Busch won last week in California that if Gordon doesn't start running better there's little reason for him to be in the Chase to start with.
"When we run like we ran tonight, we don't need to be in the Chase," Hendrick said Sunday night. "It won't make any difference. If you can't be in it and win it or have a shot at it, you know, I think it's more important for us to find the handle and get the momentum back in these last 10 and I think we've been trying some different things and trying to get Jeff the feel that he wants and we just have to go figure it out."
Hendrick said the team will simply suck it up and go to work, but it will do so with questions about Loomis' future hanging in the air. Gordon said in a teleconference Tuesday that he'd love to have Loomis return as his crew chief next year, but added that the two had talked about Loomis possibly taking a different role in '06 even before this season began.
For now, though, Gordon's only worried about getting back on track for next year. If that turnaround can start Saturday night, he'll be happy -- especially if that gets him in the Chase with what he'd consider a realistic shot at the title.
Otherwise, simply making the Chase isn't all that meaningful.
"You're always going to be optimistic that if you get in the Chase and maybe things start to go your way that you can pull something together," Gordon says. "So we certainly want to be in the Chase to give that effort and take that chance. But the way we've been this year, honestly, if we perform this weekend like we have the last few, we don't belong in the Chase anyway. All we're going to do is finish 10th in the points and go on the [awards banquet] stage and it would be a disappointing year no matter what.
"Right now, the way I look at it, is starting this weekend through the end of the season, it's all about getting the issues sorted out on the tracks that we haven't run good at and then when we do have good runs that we make sure we finish out the run. If we're competitive, we need to finish competitively. We just haven't shown that. We need to get some spark for next year -- regardless of where we end up this weekend."
The good news for Gordon is that the final race to set the field is at Richmond's three-quarter-mile facility and not one of the mile-and-a-half or two-mile tracks on which he's struggled most of the year. Gordon tested a new car at Richmond and hopes that will help do the trick.
Sadler, meanwhile, tested his Busch Series car there and finished seventh at Richmond back in May. And unlike the weeks where he put too much pressure on himself, Sadler insists he'll be relaxed this time around.
"I'm looking at this weekend as though we've got nothing to lose. I'm relaxed," Sadler says. "I was relaxed at California. I feel like going to Richmond there's only one thing we can do and that's go to try and win the race. We can't really worry about the points. We can't really worry about who we're racing and who we're not racing.
"We just need to go up there and run the best way we can, whether it's taking chances like two tires or four tires or whatever. I feel like the pressure is not on us. I think the guys that are only one or 11 points behind or 10 points ahead of 10th place have more pressure than we have. I think that we have to go up with the mind-set that we've just got to race as hard as we can and not really worry about the points."
If the pressure's on anyone, it's Gordon. No matter what happens, he doesn't plan on blinking because of it, however.
"All you can focus on is what you do have control of. We've got to go out there and put the best race car on the racetrack throughout the whole race and pit stops and strategy," Gordon says. "We're really going to have to be as on top of our game this weekend as we've ever been. We're certainly capable of that. I know we are. We haven't shown that this year, so I'm hoping that when it is all on the line that we do step it up.
"You can't really focus on the other guys because they're going to do what they're going to do, and you've got to do your job. Whatever the positions end up being, that's where you're going to end up and whether you're going to end up in the Chase or not. That's what [Jeremy] Mayfield did last year. I think he led the most laps, but even if he didn't, he won the race and did what he needed to do -- it didn't matter what the other guys did. That's the competition we have. We're racing [Ryan] Newman and [Jamie] McMurray, but there are other things that might happen -- good or bad -- and we've just got to go out there and put the best race together we can."
The one certainty is that Gordon's now a fan of the Chase format.
Otherwise, his season would have been a loss long ago. When you're expected to contend for championships, fighting for 10th place and a table at the banquet isn't much to get excited about.
Now, though, he's one good run away from possibly having a shot at his fifth title.
"In the past, I can't tell you how disappointed I'd be at this moment right now and have really nothing to look forward to other than planning for next year," Gordon says. "Right now, I'm excited and looking forward to this weekend because I know we're still in it and we're not out of it yet and we're going to fight all the way until that checkered flag waves and hope we're in it, and then try to turn things around and go for that championship or at least get as high up in points that we possibly can.
"So the Chase has changed things drastically and it's added a lot of pressure. In the past, the pressure right now would be lying on those top five guys who are battling for the championship. Right now, those guys are kind of on easy street. I thought Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart and those guys this past weekend would just kick back and relax and be looking forward to getting to New Hampshire, but they're just in total opposite when you talk to the guys who are battling to get into the Chase.
"I think it's exciting for the sport. But at the same time it's definitely changed things for those guys that are back there. I love those challenges but it's definitely heightened the challenges. Again, I compare it to '97 [when I beat Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett for the championship] and then also last year when we were actually going for the championship. I feel like this challenge compares to that."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
Jeff Gordon's not used to fighting for 10th place in points. But that's exactly where he finds himself entering the Chase cutoff race.