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:
A little-known fact is who finished second that day:
Fast forward to 2010, and those hunger pains are bordering on starvation. While
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
"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
"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: