Garrett Horton · Monday October 11, 2010
It took a little longer than in seasons past, but contenders for this year’s championship are finally starting to emerge. As it stands, five drivers are still in a good position to win the 2010 Chase. Obviously, Jimmie Johnson looks to be the favorite and extended his points lead this week to 36 over second-place Denny Hamlin. The question after Fontana becomes who has emerged as his biggest threat to challenge him. Is it Tony Stewart, who had he not run out of gas at Loudon would be less than 20 points out of the lead? Or are Kevin Harvick and Hamlin still in a good position to overtake Jimmie down the stretch? The answer is none of the above. It may be somewhat surprising, but it’s Johnson’s own teammate, Jeff Gordon. Yes, I said Jeff Gordon; the same driver who is winless in the 2010 season and whose mental error on pit road cost him valuable championship points and perhaps the race win this Sunday.
It may have not been the finish he was looking for, but with Jeff Gordon’s ninth-place run at Fontana, he and the No. 24 have established themselves as Jimmie Johnson’s biggest competitor for the title. With strong finishes in all four Chase races, Gordon sits 85 points behind his teammate and fourth overall in the point standings. Nothing spectacular, but he looks to be getting back to his early season form and proved he still has the drive to win.
After the 19th race at Chicago, Gordon sat second in the standings with 10 top-5 finishes and had led 783 laps. From then until the final regular season race, Gordon suffered a slump, having a best finish of 6th and only 41 laps led. Now that we are in the Chase, Gordon ended his top-5 drought, and has already led 42 laps in a four-race playoff where the team has looked crisp, run consistent, and met all challenges that have come their way. His 11th place at Dover has been the worst postseason performance to date; he is the only Chaser with an 11th or better finish in every race. Granted, he needs a win to be taken more seriously, but now that this team is putting themselves in position to run up front again, the sheer number of laps led show that first victory is near.
Sunday’s Pepsi Max 400 was also the first race in the Chase we saw many of the top 12 have problems, including Gordon himself. The Busch brothers and all of Roush Fenway encountered issues that all but destroyed any hopes of winning this year’s championship. Harvick and Gordon both faced an uphill battle as each one was caught speeding on pit road. However, they were able to overcome the penalties, finishing 7th and 9th, respectively, while showing how strong they were in overcoming adversity.
After apologizing to his team on the radio about the speeding ticket, it looked like Gordon wasn’t even going to finish in the top 20. Yet with good pit calls late in the race and smart moves, the No. 24 team salvaged a top 10. Not the finish they wanted — but a very impressive rally.
Once the checkered flag flew, the number of drivers within 100 points of Johnson’s No. 1 spot in the standings was reduced in half, from eight to four. Race winner Tony Stewart trimmed 20 points off Johnson’s lead to make it only five drivers within striking distance for the championship.
That thins the number of drivers Gordon needs to jump over, and Johnson’s year long title threats in Harvick and Hamlin simply don’t have the muscle to run with him in the Chase. They haven’t really given anything away — the No. 48 has just outrun them in every race, with the exception of Dover. As for Tony Stewart, he could be right up at the top of the standings battling Johnson for the lead if the Loudon race had only been 298 laps. However, that race was 300, one mile too long for his fuel tank. His first two Chase races resulted in finishes outside the top 20, runs which will cost Smoke going into Homestead.
Being a teammate to Johnson, Gordon has the best shot at running with Jimmie. And seeing how they have raced this year, Gordon is ready to end his buddy’s title streak while being the first to capture the vaunted “Drive For Five” mantra JJ is the verge of stealing if he doesn’t stop him. (Some will argue Tony is just as much a teammate, but you have to believe Hendrick is going to give his best stuff to Gordon and Johnson if it comes down to these three in the final couple of races).
Watching how the No. 24 and No. 48 raced side by side on Sunday, you couldn’t help but think back to Texas in April when they were beating and banging for the lead. The incident left neither one happy with each other, and it showed Gordon is willing to race his own teammate hard for a win. Here we are in the Chase, and it’s clear Gordon is going to race hard for the championship.
Johnson has said that his biggest threat for his fifth consecutive championship is himself, that as long he doesn’t make any mental mistakes he is the guy to beat. After getting busted for speeding, Gordon should be thinking something similar. As long as the No. 24 remains mistake free, he is certainly capable of winning this Cup. He is driving for the best team in NASCAR and stands on equal footing with Johnson. Considering he has the same equipment as the No. 48, Gordon has to believe that he can beat his teammate. Whereas other teams have had engine durability issues, Hendrick Motorsports is currently supplying the strongest, most reliable engines that gave Johnson and Gordon an advantage over everyone else.
Come November, nobody will be surprised to see a Hendrick one-two points finish yet again. This time, however, don’t be surprised if the new five-time champ is Jeff Gordon.
I would like to conclude with one more item. For the past two Nationwide races, we have seen pit crew members get their eyes flushed out for gas/speedy dry getting in their eyes. NASCAR has been good in the past about pit road safety rules, so I hope we will see them soon make a rule of protective eye wear for pit crew members. It may be minor getting something like dust in their eyes, but I would hate to see a crew member sustain permanent damage to his eye if something like a jagged edge of sheet metal were to somehow come make contact. Let’s hope this gets addressed before a serious eye injury occurs.
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