Now or never
Forget, for a moment, the Chase for the Championship. Simply take a look at Jeff Gordon, the four-time champ, the new father, the Wonder Boy, and appreciate all that he's done so far this season.
On his way to winning the regular season points championship, Gordon compiled 20 top-10 finishes in his first 22-starts of the season -- a modern era record. He won four of the first 14 races. He cooled off in the weeks before the start of the Chase when he and his crew chief Steve Letarte started testing exotic setup packages at races in which the No. 24 team had little to gain, but Gordon still won the regular season title in a landslide. In fact, under the old points system, Gordon already would have clinched the championship by virtue of the fact that he would hold a 400-point edge over Jimmie Johnson.
Yes, by any measure except one, Gordon has authored one of the most dominating seasons of his stock-car career. And yet, due to the 10-race Chase format that NASCAR adopted in 2004, he now he trails Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, by 30 points with two events left on the schedule. This obviously says a lot about Johnson, because he's currently beating Gordon, the universally acknowledged greatest racecar driver of his generation, at a time when Gordon is operating at the height of his powers.
Here's the bad news for Gordon: Based on both drivers respective histories, if Gordon doesn't make up significant ground on Johnson this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, it sure looks like Gordon won't have much of a chance of overtaking Johnson in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway next weekend -- that is, as long as Johnson doesn't have a mechanical issue or is collected in a wreck, both of which are unlikely.
Gordon's last four finishes at PIR go as follows: first, fourth, 10th, and third. Johnson hasn't been as strong at the desert track; in his last four starts there he's came in fourth, second, seventh, and seventh. Also, Sunday's race will be the final Car of Tomorrow event of the season, and Gordon has wracked up more points in the 16 CoT races this season (2,448) than any other driver, though Johnson is in second (2,316). So there's plenty of reason to believe that on Sunday Gordon should have a slight edge over Johnson.
But if Johnson can maintain or expand his points lead in Phoenix, Gordon's bid for a fifth championship will be in serious jeopardy. The two drivers have relatively similar records at Homestead over the last four years -- both have posted three top-10 finishes there since '03 -- but for Gordon to overcome, say, a 30-point hole at the 1.5-mile track, he'd likely have to finish seven positions ahead of Johnson -- give or take one spot or two based on bonus points earned. Considering Johnson has finished seventh or worse only twice in his last 14 starts, this would be a tall mountain to climb for Gordon. All of these numbers point to one reality for the No. 24 team: It's imperative for them to make up ground on the 48 guys this Sunday, and Gordon knows it.
"Performance-wise, I think we have a little bit of an advantage over the 48 team here," says Gordon of PIR. "But Jimmie's tough here, and that team has shown they can step it up when they need to."
So can Gordon catch Johnson, the reigning champ? Well, if he does, you could argue that it would be his most remarkable feat of his remarkable season. As for me, I still like Johnson, the greatest closer in the Chase era, to win it all.