You could see it in the way he smiled that the confidence is back. Minutes after Jeff Gordon turned a pole-winning lap at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Thursday -- the 69th pole of his career, which ties him for third most with Cale Yarborough in Cup history -- he flashed that youthful, ear-to-ear grin of his, the same beaming smile that he unleashed after winning each of his four championships. Could this scene be an indication that Gordon is poised on Saturday to end his 59-race winless streak, which is the longest of his 18-year career? I think so.
"We have to out run our competitors," said Gordon, 39, after taking the pole. "We don't have to win, we just have to out run those guys and finish ahead of them. We know we have to do that. We have 80-something points to make up. It doesn't all have to happen this weekend or next weekend, but when we come out at Talladega [in two weeks], we've got to be pretty close to them."
I think Gordon will. In fact, even though Gordon is in fourth place and trails points leader Jimmie Johnson by 85 points with six races left in the season, he looks primed to make a charge up the standings. He's consistently outperformed Johnson on 1.5-mile tracks like Charlotte this season. Plus, Martinsville and Talladega -- the next two stops on the circuit -- are historically two of Gordon's best tracks. Given that Johnson usually gains speed as the season winds down, Gordon needs to be within 15 points or so of the four-time defending champion once the checkered flag flies at 'Dega.
Gordon has five career victories at Charlotte and he finished fourth in this race last year. Barring a mechanical failure, he should run up front for most of the night and be in the lead pack as the laps wind down. He's my pick to win Saturday night and one of five drivers I'll be following closely once the engines fire. Here are the others.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Johnson has won as many races at Charlotte in his career (six) as at any other track in the Cup series (he's also taken six checkered flags at Dover and Martinsville). At one point he took six straight checkered flags at the track that is only two miles away from the headquarters of Hendrick Motorsports, Johnson's team.
But Johnson's dominance at Charlotte has waned in recent years. He finished 37th here earlier this year and has only one victory in his last nine starts. His aura of invincibility at the 1.5-mile track no longer exists. If a driver is to make up ground on the defending champ, this is probably the place to do it.
3. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin has only been so-so in the Chase. After finishing second in Loudon, N.H., in the playoff opener, he hasn't authored a single top-5 finish. He's second in the standings because he entered the Chase with 60 bonus points that he earned by winning a series-high six races in the regular season, but Hamlin isn't flashing the kind of speed he did just two months ago.
Will that change on Saturday night? Probably not, because Charlotte is one of his weakest tracks in the Chase. In 10 career starts here, Hamlin has zero wins and an average finish of 18.5. He'll need to do much, much better than that to stay within striking distance of Johnson.
4. Kevin Harvick
The regular season points champion, Harvick is probably the most popular pick in the garage of being the driver with the best chance of dethroning Johnson. Harvick doesn't wow you with his straight-line speed or his on-track risk taking, but he's steady behind the wheel and his equipment has been as reliable as anyone's in the sport this season.
Harvick is currently third in the standings. Like the other drivers who still have a legitimate shot at Johnson -- and this rapidly dwindling list includes Harvick, Gordon, Hamlin, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch -- Harvick will merely try to stay ahead of Johnson on Saturday night. This could be a tall task for the No. 29 team. After all, Harvick hasn't finished in the top 10 at Charlotte in his last 13 starts.
5. Kurt Busch
Busch is desperate for a win. SI's pre-Chase pick to win the championship, he finished 13th at Kansas two weeks ago and last Sunday he came in 21st in California, which has dropped him to sixth in the standings. For Busch, his season could very well be on the line on Saturday night.
Why? Because Busch believes he has as good a chance to win at Charlotte as at any track in the Chase. He took the checkers here earlier this year in a dominating performance, leading 252 of the 400 laps in the Coke 600. I say pencil him in for a top-3 finish on Sunday.