The problem with forming a racing All-Star team is that only one driver can stand out each week.
It's an issue Jeff Gordon knows all too well as of late. The man who bulldozed his competition with four Sprint Cup titles in seven years hasn't won since 2001, his shutout coinciding with the arrival of current teammate Jimmie Johnson. Seven years later, it's the No. 48 team going for their fourth straight while Gordon's still searching for the same type of magic that once was his.
"When you have a really strong team and your car's consistently running good, it allows you to focus on the important things," he said, refusing to criticize a rival that's also a good friend. "The things that really matter, to be able to get rid of distractions. It makes life a lot easier. They're a great team, they just really are. They know how to excel at the right time."
Yet Johnson's perfect timing has confounded Gordon in the Chase. Making his fifth playoff appearance, he has yet to finish better than second, despite having such successful seasons overall he'd have captured two more championships under the old format. Instead, he's won just three races in the postseason compared to Johnson's 14 wins during the Chase.
"In the past, it was 36 races [to decide a champion] -- not 26 and 10," Gordon pointed out. "You didn't have to go out there and dominate, where in this system you've got to be strong enough to make it into the top 12 through the first 26 and then you pretty much got to get dominant over the last ten.
"It's something that each time we've gone through the Chase, we've learned more about how to win it. And hopefully this time we've got what it takes."
To do it, it's clear Gordon will need to leapfrog another teammate showing Johnson-like credentials. With Mark Martin winning five races leading the points at 50, he's got not one but two drivers trying to make history beside him. It's rare to ever call a four-time champ the underdog, but surprisingly enough the sport's winningest active driver is struggling to stay relevant within his own team. Why even consider him a contender?
"We're coming back to tracks we've been to once, we're coming back to tracks I feel like we've run well at and are crucial in the Chase," Gordon said. "I mean, mile-and-a-half tracks make up the bulk of it. I feel like that's where our program has really improved from last year."
The stats do back him up, with an average finish of 10.6 at the seven Chase tracks the series has visited this year including a win, second, fourth, and 14th at the four intermediates. Gordon has also quietly put together a series-leading six runner-up finishes, making up for a paltry 202 laps led since Pocono in early June. Of course, to get over the hump another victory is a near-necessity, with the focus on Texas and Phoenix in November if the No. 24 can simply stay within striking distance 'till then.
That won't be easy, with a 15th-place finish at New Hampshire putting him 102 points back of Martin and leaving him that much more of a longshot. Yet in a year where the press coverage has been focused elsewhere, that's left Gordon loose with the attitude necessary to sneak up on competition that might not be expecting it.
"We're going to try and make [being overlooked] work to our advantage," he said. "I want to be in the position I'm in where I have a strong team with what I feel is a legitimate shot at it and a little bit under the radar. I feel we really have to pick it up a little bit at Dover, and then Kansas and California I think are great tracks for us."
At 38, Gordon knows the clock is ticking just as much as with Martin and Johnson's bid at history. With chronic back pain continuing to cause him issues inside the car, the married father of an adorable daughter knows retirement's not far down the road. Despite the many obstacles remaining in his path, motivation is simply not an issue for a driver still pushing hard for at least one more title before hanging it up for good.
"Ever since I became a father, everything I do in the race car is more special," he said. "I'd love for [Ella] to experience [a title]. [She's] a little young right now to understand, but as a father when you see your daughter see you do something exciting like that it's very emotional and it's very rewarding."
Gordon might not be the first pick for the ultimate reward right now. But in one of the strongest Chase fields in history, it's important not to forget about this champion's presence.
- For those wondering if Tony Stewart blamed Rick Hendrick for the midsummer slump that's left him stumbling into the Chase, the early answer is a resounding "no." At least, that was his answer when I asked if he was concerned Hendrick chassis and engine support would suddenly deteriorate heading into the Chase. "You know, the great thing is we can sit there and I can pick which engine I want," he said. "I have the luxury to go do that. My question to Rick when we talked about doing this was, 'Hey, we got to compete against you,' and he said, 'I promise you, you will have the same thing that we have.'
"I've always had the trust and faith in Rick; Rick was one of the first guys in Victory Lane when we win a race. He's as proud for us as he is for his own guys. I understand 100 percent he wants his cars in Victory Lane. But he wants them there because they outperformed us, not because they have something that we didn't have."
To show that solidarity, Stewart actually visited the Hendrick shop this week to thank the team for their support despite slipping to sixth in the standings after New Hampshire.
- Kasey Kahne's got bigger problems than the RPM-Yates merger this week after finishing 38th at New Hampshire. No Chase driver has ever fallen more than 139 points back after the first race and come back to win the title, but Kahne currently sits 12th, 161 behind Martin after blowing his motor just 66 laps into the race on Sunday. For their part, RPM employees adamantly deny tampering with the engine to prove a point just one week after being told they'll lose their jobs in November. But the incident couldn't be good for morale for a No. 9 team already fighting a leadership void within the company.