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Caraviello: Next 10 weeks can feel like forever -- yet fly by

June 30, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Caraviello: Next 10 weeks can feel like forever -- yet fly by
For drivers outside Chase, victories become paramount as chances tick away

A lot can happen in 10 weeks. Last season with 10 weeks remaining until the start of the Chase, the sport's eventual champion was 12th in points, and the breakout driver of the year wasn't even in the top 20. Three drivers who would become dark horse wild card contenders had yet to win races; positions in the standings would jostle like cars in the draft on a restrictor-plate track. Playoff scenarios changed again, then again, then again in that frantic, final dash to the opener at Chicagoland Speedway, a span so full of activity that it felt almost like a season unto itself.

So yes, 10 weeks can feel like a very long time -- unless you're one of those drivers who needs to win, and win soon, and win more than once to have a hope of getting in. Then it has to feel like the clock is ticking down, faster with every second, like on a detonator only Jack Bauer can defuse. For those drivers who want to qualify for the Chase, these last 10 weeks are moving time. And for those still on the outside looking in, it's pressure time.

Jeff Gordon

Final 10 races before Chase
RaceMost RecentWins
Daytona40th6
New Hampshire4th3
Indianapolis2nd4
Pocono19th5
Watkins Glen13th4
Michigan6th2
Bristol35th5
Atlanta1st5
Richmond23rd 2

Because options dwindle with each passing week. Jeff Gordon scored a top-10 finish last weekend on the road course at Sonoma, one that could have been better had he not run out of gas approaching a pit stop. All in all, it was a solid performance -- but in the end, a missed opportunity. Because at 18th in points and with a host of better-positioned wild card contenders in front of him, top-10s don't help much right now. At 76 points behind the final guaranteed playoff spot, the guy needs race victories, and he's simply running out of time in which to get them.

That's not to say it can't turn around -- after all, Brad Keselowski was 22nd in points at this point last season, but he used stretch-run victories at Pocono and Bristol to shore up his playoff spot, and then stayed in the championship hunt until he was taken out by a wreck not of his own making at Martinsville. Gordon could well go on a similar run, given how good the No. 24 car has been in so many weeks this year, and how he has favorable tracks like Indianapolis, Watkins Glen, and Michigan on the horizon.

But it has to happen, and until it does, the pressure and the frustration build. Now that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has unshackled himself from his 143-race winless streak, the microscope shifts to the one member of the Hendrick Motorsports stable who hasn't won this season -- Gordon, whose most recent victory was at Atlanta last Labor Day weekend. No one doubts the performance is there, the speed in the car is there, but in some ways that just makes it worse. Gordon has run well enough this season that he should be shoring up his Chase spot as these final 10 weeks to the playoff arrive. Instead, he's trying to keep up team morale.

"For me, from a leadership standpoint, it's really more of just going out and getting the results, and I've been fortunate throughout my career to go get those results and get the team rallied around that," he said recently. "This year, I've had to do it more on a personal level, one-on-one and in the team meetings, of really kind of stepping out there and putting some words out there that I feel like could be key to keeping us together and getting us through those tough times."

And they are tough, tougher than the always-even-keeled Gordon makes them look. It's one thing to struggle, quite another to be competitive and yet have nothing to show for it but a low points position and a goose egg in the win column. Only Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle have led more laps this season than Gordon, who paced 13 last weekend at Sonoma to eclipse 23,000 laps led in his career. He's the only active driver (and just the seventh all-time) to reach that mark, further evidence of just how strong his car has been. But a lot of good it will do him when it comes down to that Saturday night in Richmond, where the 12 drivers who will comprise the playoff field will be finalized.

"I think the No. 24 has probably run better or as good as the No. 88," said Kevin Harvick, comparing Gordon to Earnhardt, currently second in points. "... Jeff's has been in it long enough [that] he has been through spells of bad luck. You will do nothing different tomorrow, and you will win a race, and you will win four or five more and not do anything different. It's just a game of streaks, and you have to manage the down time so that your team doesn't fall apart and you continue to progress forward. I don't think that will be a problem for Jeff. He has been through a lot of that."

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He has, most notably a 66-race winless streak he snapped early last season, in what appeared the early stages of a career renaissance that's stalled out due to accidents, mechanical trouble and cut tires. On one hand, you have a driver who conceivably could have won three of the past four races, given how strong Gordon was at Dover, Michigan and Sonoma. On the other, you have a guy with just one top-five finish all season. Who knew the engine failure 81 laps into the Daytona 500 would be a harbinger of the campaign to come.

"I feel bad for Jeff. I think it probably makes it worse that he's been close," Johnson said. "... The one thing that helps at night when he goes to bed is that they have the speed, and been close so many times. I know it isn't easy. It's hard to go give him advice, it's Jeff Gordon and he knows what to do. It won't be long. I know he and [crew chief] Alan [Gustafson] are frustrated, but they're doing the right thing. That team is so strong that it's just a matter of time."

But that time is running out. Can Gordon win anywhere, including Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway? Given the speed he's shown week in and week out, of course. But there are other drivers in similarly desperate positions, and nothing is guaranteed. And the self-doubt that accompanies a slump like this one -- the second-guessing of pit decisions, the ominous, magnified sound of any strange rattle or hum in the race car -- only makes it that much more difficult.

"You look at yourself in the mirror a little bit more," said Denny Hamlin, who endured a miserable first half of the 2011 season before righting the ship just enough to make the Chase. "The crew chief wonders why you aren't winning more. It's just, you analyze everything a little bit more than you would if you had success or [were] one of the top guys at your team. I just know when we're the worst of the Gibbs cars, I'm looking and trying to figure out what we need to do to get to where we're at. You try to analyze every little bit of your car and your team more when you're behind."

Given all the close calls he's had this season and the strength of the organization behind him, no one is selling Gordon or Hendrick Motorsports short. "They'll figure it out," Hamlin added. "They'll switch resources, or whatever they have to do to make sure that No. 24 is in a spot where he can win here before the Chase gets going." Problem is, the clock is still ticking, allowing less and less time for a turnaround with every passing race. To some, these final 10 weeks before the opening of the Chase can feel like an eternity. For others, they go by in the blink of an eye.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.