By Tom Bowles
July 09, 2010

Four years ago this weekend, I flew to Joliet to work my first race as a NASCAR associate producer. You couldn't have asked for a better one: Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth going at it for the lead, Gordon spinning Kenseth out to score his second win in just three weeks. It easily ranks as the top race at what's usually one of NASCAR's sleep-inducing cookie-cutter venues.

A little-known fact is who finished second that day: Jeff Burton. His best-ever run since moving to Richard Childress Racing, he won the pole, led 60 laps and moved to fourth in points. An enduring image for me remains how happy and hungry both Jeffs were, seemingly poised to rebound and win multiple races and championships the next few years.

Fast forward to 2010, and those hunger pains are bordering on starvation. While Jimmie Johnson's won four titles, Gordon and Burton have pulled a shutout despite going a combined 7-for-8 in Chase appearances. Even Victory Lane has been a struggle: they have just three wins since February 2008 while riding winless streaks of 47 and 59 races, respectively.

But don't break out the tissues just yet. To borrow a line from Burton, these two have run well, excelling at "putting themselves in position to win." It's closing the deal that's suddenly haunted them. Transforming from respected veterans to rookies before our eyes, they've led a total of 1,104 laps but blown their chances on everything from missing pit road (Gordon -- Darlington) to cutting down a tire (Burton -- Martinsville) to messing with Kyle Busch (Burton -- multiple times). A season that could have turned into a renaissance for both has instead devolved into watching youngsters Denny Hamlin and Johnson run circles around them, winning 10 of 18 races while the two Jeffs butt their heads and wonder what might have been.

"It's bizarre to run the way we've run and to post the finishes that we've posted," says Burton. "We consistently have been one of the faster cars. I think we certainly had a real shot at California, Martinsville, Texas, Richmond, Loudon and last weekend at Daytona. So, I feel like we're close. I've been a part of a lot of different scenarios, but I've never been part of this scenario where we run this well and finish this poorly."

For Gordon, Saturday night carries with it more meaning as it's his 600th start since appearing as a fresh-faced 21-year-old at Atlanta in 1992. Touted as the next Richard Petty, he once won so frequently it looked like he could do the unthinkable: get within 50 of The King's mythical 200-win total. Now? He'll be lucky to catch David Pearson's 105 for second all-time, stuck at 82 as retirement beckons just a few years down the road.

"I've accomplished way more than I ever thought I would in this sport," Gordon claims. "Everything else from here on is just 'icing on the cake.'"

Still, you've got to feel Gordon is getting just a little frustrated -- especially with the focus on Johnson once again, with two wins, a new baby, and the label of "title favorite" plastered on the No. 48 in just the last month. Causing nearly half-a-dozen accidents at Infineon Raceway the end of June, Gordon's shown some aggression in a world where he's morphed into an underdog before our eyes.

"I try not to make the same mistakes twice," he said a few weeks back, insistent at Loudon he'd corrected the problems that have haunted him. "I'm not thinking oh, well, we need to protect right now [in the points] because we had a couple of bad weeks and now we've got to be consistent. We're doing everything we can to go win every race."

That's exactly what I'm picking Gordon to do Saturday night. Averaging a 5.8 average finish in his last four starts in Chicagoland, this team is already knocking on the door with four straight top-5 finishes. With J.J. still winless at this place -- one of the more difficult venues for the No. 48 -- it's time for their shopmates to steal a little bit of the spotlight across the way. Despite figuring out the new spoiler, Hendrick remains winless outside the Johnson camp, and they've been too good as of late for the drought to last much longer.

But if there's a late green-white-checkered restart -- Gordon's big weakness since the new format came into play -- then look for Jeff Burton to emerge as the darkhorse. You'd have to think at some point, one of these men is going to put their demons behind them, right?

"We're not closing the deal, but we will," Burton says. "And, when we do, there's going to be a bunch of them (wins). If we can get ourselves in the Chase, we are going to be a contender."

Here's three other drivers to watch:

1) Mark Martin: Led 195 laps en route to dominating this race last year. Been running poorly as of late, but this race sparked a remarkable summer stretch run in '09.

2) Kasey Kahne: Third in 2009 and armed with top-5 finishes in three of the last four races. How awful would it be if Ford's Lame Duck was the first one to visit Victory Lane for the Blue Ovals this year?

3) Denny Hamlin: Smoked 'em at the circuit's last intermediate (Michigan) but hasn't been seen near the top 10 since. Fifth here in '09, he needs to rebound before the big race at Indy in two weeks.

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