When Kansas Speedway opened 10 years ago, Jeff Gordon was the most dominant figure in NASCAR. He won that inaugural race in 2001 -- the 58th victory of his still-young career -- on the way to his fourth Cup championship. He was 30 and speculation centered on whether he could match or even surpass the record-seven career championships shared by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
Ten years later, Gordon remains stuck on title No. 4 while Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson is now challenging the all-time championship record. Gordon turned 40 in August and is inevitably approaching the final turn of his illustrious career.
So this could be Gordon's last chance to win that elusive fifth championship. He has won three times this year, exceeding his victory total of the past three seasons combined, and has 11 top-five finishes, the fourth-most on the circuit. But he has gotten off to a slow start in the Chase, with a 12th and a 24th in two of the first three races. As a result, Gordon is ninth in the standings, 19 points out of the lead.
If Gordon is going to make a legitimate drive for title No. 5, a solid performance Sunday afternoon at Kansas is mandatory. It is certainly a track where he can make up some ground in the standings. Gordon has an average finish of 8.1 in 11 Kansas starts, the best among all Sprint Cup Series drivers. He has eight top-fives at the track, and his only finish worse than 13th was when he had to drop out with a fuel-pump problem in 2006.
"Every year, I can't wait to get to Kansas," Gordon said earlier this year. "It has always been a great track for us. We've had top-fives there even when we weren't at our best. So it seems to be one of our good tracks."
If it is a good track for Gordon once again on Sunday, then he will be right back in the thick of the title hunt. But if it's not, he likely will miss out on the championship for the 10th consecutive season. At that point, one would have to wonder whether Gordon is waiting for a next year that will never come.
Here are four other drivers to watch when the green flag flies at Kansas:
1. Jimmie Johnson
Let's face it, all eyes will be on Johnson every week for the rest of the season. His quest for an amazing sixth consecutive Cup championship demands it. Such a feat would go down as one of the greatest accomplishments in all of sports. And after stumbling out of the Chase gate with a 10th and an 18th, he bounced back nicely with a runner-up finish last week at Dover. He sits fifth in the standings, a mere 13 points out of the lead.
This also happens to be one of Johnson's best tracks. He has a career average finish at Kansas of 9.1, and that includes an accident in 2004 that relegated him to 32nd place. Take away that race and his average jumps to 6.5, with five consecutive top-10s and a victory in 2008. If Johnson wins Sunday or even finishes in the top five, the rest of the field is going to start getting nervous.
2. Carl Edwards
It is doubtful that anybody wants to win at Kansas more than Edwards. A native of Columbia, Mo., Edwards has repeatedly stated over the years that a Kansas victory would be the highlight of his career so far. It was at Kansas, remember, where Edwards purposely bounced off the concrete wall coming out of the third turn on the final lap in a desperate -- and ultimately futile -- attempt to pass Johnson in 2008.
"The idea of being able to win there is big," Edwards said earlier this year. "For drivers who race around that area on local dirt tracks and stuff, Kansas Speedway is very special. I was fortunate to win the Truck race there [in 2004]. That was a huge victory, and to win the Cup race would be unbelievable."
Edwards has certainly been close, with five finishes in the top six. He currently is the co-leader in the standings, so a victory Sunday would give him sole possession of the lead. Don't expect Edwards to do any points racing this week. He is in it to win it.
3. Kevin Harvick
Is it is possible to have a share of the points lead and still be considered an underdog? If so, then Harvick fits that category. A late-summer slump led many people to write off Harvick as a serious contender, despite his four victories this season. Still, the fact is he is off to a solid start in the Chase, with a runner-up finish at Chicago and three top-12 outings.
For the most part, Harvick has struggled at Kansas. He has only one top-five and four top-10s in 11 starts. But three of those top-10s have come in his past five trips to Kansas. A similar showing on Sunday would force the doubters to give Harvick a legitimate shot at winning the championship.
4. Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch is starting to become the San Diego Chargers of NASCAR. He puts up great numbers during the regular season, then flames out once the postseason arrives. So far it is a similar story this year. Busch's four victories tie him with Harvick for the most this season. But he has only one top-10 and no top-fives in the first three Chase races and has slumped to eighth in the standings.
Busch needs an impressive showing this week to move back into contention. Unfortunately for him, Kansas has been one of his worst tracks. He has only one top-10 there, back in 2006, and has finished outside the top 20 in five of his eight starts. If he is unable to change that trend this weekend, his title aspirations will go on hold until 2012.