Dustin Long
Monday June 6th, 2011

As inspirational phrases flowed from crew chiefs to drivers before Sunday's race at Kansas Speedway, one message was succinct.

"Our time today,'' crew chief Alan Gustafson radioed Jeff Gordon. "Let's be great.''

Gordon and his team had been anything but lately. While he'd run well at times in recent races, the results didn't show it. An ill-timed caution, a pit call that didn't work or some other issue conspired to hold Gordon and his group back. He entered Kansas with one top-10 finish in the six previous races.

There were no hiccups Sunday, as Gordon finished fourth to winner Brad Keselowski.

"We just got what we deserved,'' Gustafson said. "Since Darlington, we've had good cars, we just haven't gotten the finishes. It gets very frustrating. You look at yourself and wonder what you're doing wrong or why things aren't coming out the way they need to go. The pressure kind of mounts, so it's just nice to get a good run.''

The finish left a sweat-soaked Gordon enthused.

"This is definitely going to build a lot of momentum for us,'' he said, sitting on the pit wall after running 400 miles on a day where the temperature exceeded 90 degrees. "We needed this run.''

The past three points races had been especially tough for Gordon and the team. Consider:

-- Gordon was seventh with 22 laps left in the Coca-Cola 600 but had to pit late for fuel. Just after Gordon's green-flag stop, teammate Jimmie Johnson's engine blew, causing a caution that trapped Gordon a lap down. Gordon finished 20th.

-- He was 12th with 60 laps to go at Dover. While a late, two-tire pit call helped Matt Kenseth win that race, the same call didn't work as well for Gordon. He finished 17th.

-- Gordon was seventh with 30 laps to go at Darlington, a track where only David Pearson and Dale Earnhardt have won more often, but got shuffled back on the final restart before rallying to finish 12th.

While Gordon could look at some positive moments in each race, he came to Kansas 16th in the points -- the lowest he's been in the points 12 races into a season.

It wasn't where he was in the points that concerned Gordon the most, though.

"It is not just about being in the top-10 in points, it is about being a threat for the championship,'' said the four-time champion. "And, yes, you have to be in the top-10 or 12, in order to do that and you can improve your program by the time the Chase comes around and be a threat for the championship. So that's why we can't give up.

"We have to work hard to improve all the time. But, I think, from a points standpoint right now, what we have to focus on is winning races because, if we can win another one or two races, to me, that locks us in. We understand that not only locks us in, it gives us momentum to be in a position to actually be a threat for the championship.

"We've gotten ourselves behind and that is obvious, it shows where we are in the points. We've been inconsistent and we haven't performed they way we need to. So, to me, it is not just about being in the top 12. It is about being in the top 12 and being a real threat for the championship.''

One of the struggles for all of Hendrick Motorsports has been its performance on the intermediate tracks such as Kansas. Fords have proved the strongest this season -- Tony Stewart said this past weekend that competing against a car with a Ford engine is like "bringing a knife to a gunfight."

Gustafson notes that when he was Mark Martin's crew chief last season, they struggled on the intermediate tracks during the middle of the year. The cars improved as the season progressed. When Gustafson was paired with Gordon in the driver/team swap at Hendrick in the offseason, Gustafson continued refining the cars in the same manner as last year. One problem, though.

"With Jeff, it was just not ideal for his driving style, so we had to kind of turn the ship and change our direction,'' Gustafson said. "When you're building cars months out and scheduling cars (for races) weeks out, you've really got to schedule your stuff about six weeks out, (so) it's hard to change on a dime.''

That's what made not getting the results so hard on Gustafson and the team. It was as if all their work in matching the car to Gordon's driving style was not being rewarded.

"We got one today,'' Gustafson said. "Man, it feels really good.''

Gordon excelled in a car that had only one previous start this season, coming at Darlington.

The car he nearly drove to a top-10 finish in the Coca-Cola 600 also was making its first start. Gustafson will take that car to Michigan in two weeks. The car Gordon will drive this weekend at Pocono has run once this year and has been updated.

"It hasn't been easy,'' Gustafson said of this season, "but we're gaining on it.''

Turnaround: Kurt Busch's domination and Brad Keselowski's win Sunday provided Penske Racing with another uplifting weekend.

It was only a few weeks ago that the organization faced questions after Busch's frustration with how the car and team performed.

What fans see -- Busch led the most laps Sunday and has back-to-back top-10s, while Keselowski's win comes a week after taking the pole at Charlotte -- isn't all related to the changes made after Busch's comments.

"I don't think that anyone making comments publicly or internally are going to turn the team around in two or three weeks,'' car owner Roger Penske said. "When you've got two drivers and probably 30 cars, you can't just do things overnight.''

Penske notes that the progress being made is a result of work done over a longer period.

"We've got about 350 people that are committed to these two guys and these two teams,'' Penske said. "The cars are better. The drivers, obviously the more that Brad runs in this series, he's going to get better. I think it's working in a number of areas.

"The engines, we've had good power, (but) we need more. And we need better handling. These guys are testing every single week. Overall, it's just a lot of hard work.''

Busch is sixth in the points and in line for a spot in the 12-man Chase. Keselowski's win also gives him a chance to make the Chase. With two wild-card spots going to drivers with the most wins and between 11th and 20th in the points, Keselowski could contend for a spot. He's 21st in the points now, so he'll need to climb the standings but he has 13 races to do so before the Chase field is set.

"If we deserve to be in it, we'll get in it,'' Keselowski said. "If we don't, we won't. Right now, we're on a good path to deserve to be in it. That's really what matters the most to me.''

Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found here.

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