He strolled along topless beaches, drank fine wines and rubbed shoulders at yacht parties with the rich and famous from around the globe. But for Jeff Gordon, the best part of a trip to the French Riviera at the end of July, during one of NASCAR's rare weekends off, was simply that he got away--away from the track, the grind of sponsor commitments and questions about the worst slump of his 13-year Cup career.
"I am totally recharged and ready to roll," said Gordon, as he sat in the DuPont Chevy hauler at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last Friday, the day after he turned 34. "We're 15th in points right now. For the next six races, we need to be in the top 10 in every one and also have three or four top five finishes. We can still qualify for the Chase, but it has to start this weekend."
And so it did. On Sunday in the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, Gordon didn't have the power to catch race winner Tony Stewart (SI, Aug. 8), but he had the grit to rally late and finish eighth. After making contact with Mike Bliss's car and sustaining damage to his right-front fender, Gordon was stuck in 28th place with 39 laps to go. He and crew chief Robbie Loomis consulted over the radio, and on a subsequent pit stop the crew pulled out the fender and made a key minor chassis adjustment. The car took off as if it had an extra gear.
Gordon charged through the field to accomplish his goal of a top 10 finish and moved up one notch in the point standings. (Stewart, meanwhile, continued his run as NASCAR's hottest driver and took over the points lead from Jimmie Johnson.) With five races to go before the playoff-style Chase for the Nextel Cup begins, Gordon is only 87 points out of 10th place (box, right), the last guaranteed qualifying spot.
A successful late-season run by Gordon would be a boost not only for his fans but also for executives at NASCAR and the two networks, NBC and cable partner TNT, that will air the rest of the Cup races this season. Should Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.--the sport's most popular driver, who crashed and finished last at Indy and is a long shot to make the final top 10--not make it to the Chase, their absence could rob the playoff format of some of its luster in only its second year.
Gordon's struggles over the past two months had surprised everyone in the Nextel Cup garage. After winning three of the season's first nine races, he appeared headed for his fifth Cup championship. But in his 10 starts before Indy, Gordon finished 25th or worse seven times and dropped from second to 15th in the point standings. "We've had trouble making Jeff feel comfortable with the car's handling, and we've had crashes and just bad luck," says Loomis. "But we feel like we've turned a corner. If we can just get into the Chase, we think we'll have a shot at the whole thing. This year the Chase format really plays in our favor."
So does the schedule leading to the Chase. Gordon has 16 career wins at the five tracks NASCAR visits before the Chase field is determined, including four wins on the road course at Watkins Glen (N.Y.), the site of this Sunday's race. "We're set up to make a run for the Chase," says Gordon. "Now we just have to do it."
Five races remain before the start of the Chase for the Nextel Cup. With only the top 10 drivers in the standings, plus any others within 400 points of the leader (currently Tony Stewart, with 2,923; Carl Edwards is 10th, with 2,487), qualifying for the 10-race playoff, some of NASCAR's biggest names may miss the cut. Here are the biggest surprises still outside the top 10.
GREEN= Coming through YELLOW=Bumpy road ahead BLACK=Park it
DRIVER: Elliott Sadler
CUP STANDING: 12th
POINTS OUT OF TOP 10: 24
M&M's Ford driver's solid-if-unspectacular finishes kept him in top 5 until not-so-sweet run over last four races: three finishes of 32nd or worse
DRIVER: Jeff Gordon
CUP STANDING: 14th
POINTS OUT OF TOP 10: 87
Four-time champ opened season with win and added two more, but summer slump put him in this hole; still, his top 10 at Indy looks like a turnaround
DRIVER: Matt Kenseth
CUP STANDING: 15th
POINTS OUT OF TOP 10: 168
Ultraconsistent on way to '03 Cup title but this year has eight finishes of 26th or worse and only seven top 10s; a fifth at Indy may be too little too late
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
CUP STANDING: 16th
POINTS OUT OF TOP 10: 191
After abysmal start, went on miniroll (three top 10s, with a win) in July, but a 33rd at Pocono and a 43rd at Indy left Bud team's hopes as flat as warm beer
CUP STANDING: 21st
POINTS OUT OF TOP 10: 275
Got first career victory in May and was strong second at Indy, but '04 Rookie of the Year also has failed to finish five races