Long gone are the days when Jeff Gordon was known as Wonder Boy. It was an appropriate nickname back in the 1990s, given Gordon's age (he was only 21 when he made his Winston Cup debut in 1992), his boyish appearance (after he shaved off his hideous 'stache, he looked like he was 13) and his precocious racing ability (he won 46 races and three championships before his 28th birthday).
Gordon obviously can no longer be considered a boy. He is 42 years old and has two children. And he isn't much of a "wonder" lately, either. He is winless this season, has a total of six victories since 2007, and has finished no better than eighth in the point standings the past three years.
But Gordon might be on the verge of deserving a new moniker. If he's too old to be "The Comeback Kid," then maybe "The Comeback Codger" is apt. He raced his way into the Chase for the Sprint Cup last season, posting a third-place finish and two runner-ups in the final three races before the Chase began. That enabled him to grab the final spot in the 12-driver field by three points over Kyle Busch. Gordon is attempting a similar late charge this year. He was 14th in the standings before Saturday's race at Bristol and 26 points out of 10th place (the top 10 drivers automatically make the Chase). But despite starting 32nd at Bristol, he battled his way to a seventh-place finish. He is now 13th in the standings and only 11 points out of 10th with two races remaining before the Chase field is set.
Gordon was 21 points away from making the Chase with two races left last season, so he can obviously overcome his current deficit. But he also could probably make it as a wild card if he wins either of the next two races: this coming Sunday night at Atlanta or the following Saturday night at Richmond. Gordon has a points lead over both of the drivers who currently claim the two wild card spots -- Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman -- but he is not eligible for the wild card because he is winless. His best chance to change that might come at Atlanta, where Gordon has five career victories, including a win just two years ago. Even if Gordon doesn't make it to Victory Lane, Atlanta could be a productive points race for him. He has 25 top-10 finishes in 39 starts at the track, and his average finish of 11.9 is third-best among all active Cup drivers (behind only Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart).
So despite all of his difficulties this year -- including some bad timing on several occasions with pit stops that occurred just as a caution came out -- Gordon still has an excellent chance to salvage his season.
"That's what I love about the Chase," he said recently. "You can be off the pace or not having things go your way early in the season, and you can get it turned around and get that momentum and find the speed and do the things that you need to do as a team to get yourself geared up. And if you make it in the Chase, then you really could be a threat at winning it. At this point, I don't think we're considering ourselves a contender for the championship, but I think we're a real serious contender in the wild card and that ninth and 10th position."
If this four-time Cup champion can qualify for the Chase, then who knows? Wonderful things might happen.
1. Kasey Kahne (4th previously) -- It might seem like blasphemy to put anyone other than Jimmie Johnson in the top spot, but the Power Rankings are all about what you've done lately, and Johnson simply hasn't done much. He has finished 36th and 40th in the past two races and hasn't placed better than eighth in the last four. Kahne, meanwhile, has an average finish of 9.7 over the past six races, with a victory, a second and a third during that span.
2. Jimmie Johnson (1st) -- With that said, we're not dropping Johnson very far. He was the victim of a wreck that wasn't his fault on Saturday night at Bristol, and he dropped out early with a blown engine the week before at Michigan. He remains the favorite to win the championship, though his title run might turn out to be a little more interesting than some expected.
3. Matt Kenseth (7th) -- It's impossible to ignore Kenseth's series-best five victories this season. It's also impossible to ignore the fact that he has finished 15th or worse in eight of the past 13 races. His inconsistency prevents him from being ranked any higher, though he has to be considered a serious title contender.
4. Kyle Busch (3rd) -- He has been dominant at Bristol all year in all series, so his 11th-place finish on Saturday night was a bit of a disappointment. It continued a trend of no middle ground for Busch. He has been 12th or better in 16 of the 24 Sprint Cup races this season and no higher than 23rd in the other eight.
5. Clint Bowyer (2nd) -- Bowyer extended his streak of consecutive top-20s to 19, and he's only 18 points behind Johnson for the lead in the Cup standings. Still, he remains winless this season, and he has cracked the top-five just once in the past six races.
6. Joey Logano (10th) -- Nobody has been better during the past five races. He has a ridiculous average finish of 5.6 during that span, with a victory at Michigan two weeks ago followed by a fifth-place run at Bristol. Right now, Logano is the best driver at Penske Racing, as teammate and defending Cup champ Brad Keselowski scrambles merely to make the Chase.
7. Kevin Harvick (5th) -- Like Johnson, Harvick got caught up in a wreck not of his making at Bristol and had his worst finish (34th) since Talladega in early May. After that debacle, he reeled off nine consecutive top-10s, but has managed only one in his past five starts.
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (9th) -- He did exactly what he needed to do at Bristol -- stay out of trouble -- and he wound up 10th after two consecutive finishes in the 30s. As a result, Earnhardt now has a 33-point cushion over 11th place in the standings and is in good shape to qualify for the Chase.
9. Carl Edwards (8th) -- Edwards led 119 laps at Bristol before his engine blew three-fourths of the way through the race. His 39th-place finish was his worst showing of the year, but he's third in the points and will be in the Chase -- though he has only one top-five finish in the past eight races.
10. Greg Biffle (unranked) -- Every year we ignore Biffle, and nearly every year he shows up in the Chase. He's now on the verge of making it for the fifth time in the past six seasons. Still, he hasn't finished better than eighth since his victory at Michigan in June, and it seems unlikely that he will be in the mix for the championship.