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Jeff Gordon battling through another tough Sprint Cup season

Photo: Derik Hamilton/Icon SMI

Jeff Gordon's biggest obstacle to making the Chase is very likely his inconsistency.

Dover winner Tony Stewart is not the only multi-time Sprint Cup Series champion who is feeling a little bit better about things these days. Jeff Gordon, who has won four championships and 87 races in his 22-year Cup career, also left Dover with a sense of optimism that he can still salvage a successful 2013 despite a dreary start to the season.

Gordon was not in a good mood when he arrived at Dover last week. He was coming off an accident at Charlotte that left him in 35th place. Through the first 12 races of the season, he had as many finishes in the 30s as he had in the top 10 (three each). He was 15th in the point standings, looking up at such drivers as Paul Menard and Aric Almirola, who have combined for 86 fewer Cup victories than Gordon.

"Our season has been terrible," Gordon declared last week. "We have put together a few solid races, but other than that I can't say we have done much. It just hasn't been our year. But we are going to fight as hard as we can to make up for it. There's a lot of racing left to go."

Turned out it took only one race to improve Gordon's outlook. He finished third at Dover and jumped to 11th in the standings, the best he has been since the second race of the season. And now the series heads to Pocono, where Gordon has won six times (including in a rain-shortened race last August) and posted 28 top-10 finishes in 40 career starts. His average Pocono finish of 10.15 is second only to Jimmie Johnson's 9.0 career mark. In his past 13 trips to Pocono, Gordon has picked up three wins and finished among the top six a total of eight times.

If Gordon is indeed going to work himself back into being a legitimate championship contender, he needs to follow up his Dover run with another solid performance at Pocono. Not only has he failed to put together back-to-back top 10s all season, he has actually had some of his worst showings of the year the week after finishing in the top 10. He was ninth at Phoenix and then 25th a week later at Las Vegas. He finished third at Martinsville and then 38th at Texas because of a suspension problem. And he followed up his third-place run at Darlington with a crash and 35th-place finish at Charlotte.

"We just never seem to get into a rhythm of momentum," Gordon said after the Dover race. "We have had some things happen to us, some self inflicted and some things out of our hands. We just have to keep fighting."

That was what Gordon's team did last year when the situation actually was much worse than what he currently faces. Gordon left Pocono last June in 22nd place in the standings. But he ripped off nine finishes in the top six during the next 12 races to barely squeak into the Chase over Kyle Busch. And though he quickly dropped from championship contention once the Chase began, the summertime rally he made last season gives him confidence that his team is capable of putting together a similar streak this year.

"We can certainly do it again, but it's not something you want to do," Gordon said. "We definitely focused coming into this season on -- even if we're off a little bit -- let's get some consistent finishes so we're staying up in the points and don't get too far behind. And yet here we are in a similar situation.

"But we're fighters. We just don't give up. We're a much stronger team than we've shown in the results. And this team is a tight-knit group. We went through this last year and came out strong. We just kind of hoped that momentum would carry over so we could start the season off strong. But don't count us out, that's for sure."

Power Rankings

1. Jimmie Johnson (1st previously) -- The decision by NASCAR to penalize Johnson for jumping the restart with 19 laps to go Sunday at Dover sent him to a 17th-place finish. He has now finished outside the top 10 in three of the past five races, but he remains comfortably atop the point standings and our power rankings.

2. Carl Edwards (3rd) -- Edwards hasn't been flashy this year, but nobody has been more consistent. Though he has led only a handful of laps since his victory at Phoenix in the second race of the season, he's posted 12 consecutive top-20 finishes with seven top 10s.

3. Clint Bowyer (4th) -- Even though he is still winless this season, Bowyer has been the best driver in Sprint Cup over the past six races. He has an average finish of 8.33 during that span, with four top 10s. He hasn't finished outside the top 20 since late March.

4. Matt Kenseth (2nd) -- With a series-best three victories and seven top 10s, a case could be made that Kenseth has been the best driver this season. But he ended up 40th at Dover because of a blown engine, marking the third time he has finished 35th or worse.

5. Kevin Harvick (6th) -- Take away his crashes at restrictor-plate tracks Daytona and Talladega, and Harvick has not finished worse than 14th all season. He has two wins and four top 10s over the past five races.

6. Kasey Kahne (5th) -- Kahne suddenly finds himself in a serious slump. He left Kansas on April 21 in second place in the point standings and has cracked the top 15 only once in the five races since then while dropping to seventh in the standings.

7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (7th) --He has eight top-10 finishes, tied for the most in the series. Yet, amazingly, he has been in the lead for a grand total of one lap over the past 11 races. It's hard to win if you never even lead.

8. Jeff Gordon (unranked) -- Several other drivers might have better overall numbers this season, but there are signs that Gordon could be poised for a successful summer. He has come in third in two of the past three races. And while he has only four top 10s this season, he has finished 11th three times.

9. Brad Keselowski (9th) -- His troubles continue. A fifth-place run at Dover was his first top 10 in five races, but then his car failed post-race inspection for the second time this season. He could be looking at yet another points penalty.

10. Kyle Busch (unranked) -- His erratic season took an upward turn at Dover. A week after a blown engine left him 38th at Charlotte, he motored to a fourth-place finish. Busch now has six top 10s to go along with four finishes outside the top 30.

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