Tim Tuttle
Thursday November 8th, 2007

Jeff Gordon sounded discouraged, perhaps even pessimistic, after falling 30 points behind Jimmie Johnson in the Chase for the Nextel Cup at Texas. Born more of frustration than outright failure, Gordon's words shouldn't be taken as a sign Gordon and the No. 24 Chevrolet are running up the white flag.

Remember, Gordon is a warrior chief in the world of stock cars. He's won four championships and 81 races in Cup, sixth on the all-time list. With six victories this season, this has been Gordon's best year since 2001. He's been the points leader after 26 of 34 races, including five of eight in the Chase. In all respects, it has been a remarkable season.

But with three straight victories, Johnson has overtaken Gordon, and including the final two races of the regular season, JJ has won five of the last 10. It may be the greatest stretch run in NASCAR history.

Meanwhile, Gordon has finished third, seventh and seventh in the last three races, part of a strong run in the Chase with two wins, five top-fives and seven top-10s. His worst finish in the eight playoff races has been 11th at Dover. Those are Chase-winning numbers. They still could be, depending upon what happens this Sunday at Phoenix and a week later at Homestead-Miami.

In the April race at Phoenix, Gordon won while Johnson finished fourth, a result that saw Gordon outscore his Hendrick teammate by 30 points. Could it happen the same way Sunday and send them to Homestead-Miami tied? It's certainly possible given their powerful performances in the Chase and in the Car of Tomorrow. I expect Gordon to win Sunday and Johnson to be in the top five, putting them into a virtual tie for the championship going into Homestead-Miami.

"All we can do is go out there and perform the best we possibly can just like we did [at Texas] and hope that it's enough to be ahead of the guys we are racing, like Jimmie," Gordon said. "We can't control when they're doing what they're doing. They're doing a great job and you can't take anything away from that. It's hard for anybody right now to step up and beat them, let alone us. If it comes down to that then, I don't know. It's going to be tough to beat them.

"I think we might be able to beat them [at Phoenix] if we're just talking sheer performance. But he's (Johnson) pretty tough there, too. I don't know. If it comes down to that, I think we've just got to keep playing it smart and being consistent and keep doing things that we've been doing all year long."

Trailing by 30 points isn't the problem for Gordon. Finishing ahead of Johnson is.

"Thirty isn't much," Gordon said. "We've got to go put some pressure back on them and outperform them. Phoenix is a good track for us and we'll go there and fight hard like we did [at Texas]. Hopefully, we'll get those points back."

The wily Bruton Smith's purchase of New Hampshire International Speedway from the Bahre family last week is likely the first of several moves that will alter future Nextel Cup schedules, particularly in the Chase.

In paying $340 million in cash for the 1-mile track, Smith established that Nextel Cup dates are worth more than $100 million. What would the track, renamed New Hampshire Motor Speedway by Smith, be worth without its two Cup dates? My estimate is no more than $125 million, and that's probably generous.

Smith, as part of the settlement of the Ferko lawsuit in Texas, paid $100 million for Rockingham, shuttered the track and moved its Cup date to Texas in '05. Rockingham recently sold at auction for $4.4 million.

Speculation has been rampant that Smith plans on moving one of the two New Hampshire Cup dates to Las Vegas Motor Speedway in '09. Las Vegas has 50,000 more seats than New Hampshire and superior amenities. NASCAR says the '08 schedule is set in stone.

If Smith builds more grandstands and adds suites at New Hampshire, it will be a clear indication the track -- which has sold out for all 26 Cup races -- will keep both dates. If the track's capacity stays the same, one of those dates will move to Las Vegas.

Smith also has standing offers to Pocono and Dover, each with two Cup dates. Dover, with 140,000 seats, is more valuable than New Hampshire. The company also owns Nashville Superspeedway, Memphis Motorsports Park and Gateway International Raceway, located near St. Louis, and they have well-attended Busch and Craftsman Truck races. The asking price for all four tracks, based upon the New Hampshire precedent, should be in the $500 million to $600 million range.

If Smith can add Pocono, which could bring in $400 million on its own, and Dover to the Speedway Motorsports, Inc., properties (he's the largest stockholder, Chairman of the Board and in control of the company), he'll have some flexibility in moving dates around in terms of tracks and time periods. Buying Pocono could, for example, allow him to keep the two dates in New Hampshire and move one of Pocono's Cup races to Las Vegas.

The $340 million for New Hampshire represents an escalation for the cost of a race track with a Cup date. ISC, controlled by NASCAR's France family, spent $260 million to build the magnificent Kansas Speedway that opened in '01. Chicagoland Speedway, which also opened in '01, was built for $135 million, but has far fewer suites and other fan enhancements.

Smith spent $215 million building the massive Texas track in the middle '90s and bought Las Vegas for $210 million in the late '90s.

With even more money flowing out of Smith's pockets, it's clear Smith's expansion plans are far from over.

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