RICHMOND, Va. -- Piece of cake, says Jeff Gordon, when asked about his prospects for making the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Well, not really. Gordon is fully cognizant of the challenge in front of him as he tries to fight his way into the Chase. But last year's experience of doing just that, under arguably more trying circumstances, will serve him well in Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway.
Gordon is winless this year and 11th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings, outside the Chase bubble by six points. Last year, he rallied from a lap down at Richmond to edge Kyle Busch for the final Chase spot by three points.
"After last year, this is going to be easy," Gordon quipped Thursday during media availability for drivers fighting for the final five Chase spots. "We went through so much last year that I think it allows us to be more relaxed, be more prepared, knowing that you've got to race as hard as you can to the final lap, until you cross that start/finish line, and it can change every split second.
"We've run good in recent weeks, which I'm excited about. We tested here… we didn't have a great test, I'll be honest, but I feel like we learned what not to do and made some big changes to improve the car as the test went on, and I think that's certainly going to benefit us this weekend. This is certainly a track I enjoy, and I think we're up for the challenge. I'm looking forward to Saturday night."
Having made the Chase against long odds in 2012, Gordon can approach this year's battle with confidence.
"I think we were in a tougher spot last year than we are this year," he said. "The way it prepared us was just knowing that, no matter what happens, you can't ever give up. You just have to put every bit of effort into every single moment every lap. If the car's off, you've got to work on it, and sometimes take big swings at it.
"If your car's perfect, don't get complacent. Pit strategy, as we saw, really played out huge here the last time. Of course, the rain, all that played a factor as well. It's going to be crazy and intense, and there's so many factors that play into who's going to make it in and who's not. It's certainly going to be an exciting race to watch and to be a part of."
Kurt Busch is relishing his role as the driver trying to put a single-car operation into the Chase for the first time.
Behind the wheel of the Denver, Colo.-based Furniture Row Chevrolet, Busch has worked his way into the 10th spot in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings, six points ahead of Jeff Gordon in 11th. If Busch can hold serve Saturday night at Richmond, he'll make the Chase.
"Here we are on the cusp of doing something very special with a single-car team," Busch said. "Win, lose or draw, I think it's been a success. We're in uncharted territory for a single-car team, and if we don't win, we know we gave it our best shot, and we know that we were capable of doing it. We just came up shy on some of those bad days, or some of those moments that you wanted back.
"Every team has those, though, but to be in the position we're in and have a cushion, it's fun to be here and to feel the energy and to feel the excitement of trying to deliver for the team. I like these pressure-cooker situations. I feel like we're an underdog, and it's fine to be that. I enjoy the underdog role -- I'm a Chicago Cubs fan for life."
Of course, Busch hasn't suffered through a 105-year title drought, as the Cubs have. Busch won the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship in 2004, the first year of the Chase format.
You gotta believe
Why compete in the Chase, if you don't think you can win it?
That's Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s attitude as he tries to nail down a Chase spot on Saturday night.
"Every time you're in, you think this is your shot," Earnhardt said. "Every time you're in, you got to go in with the most confidence that you're going to get it done. This is a great opportunity that I've got."
Typically, to win the championship, a team must step up its performance in the Chase -- and win races.
"We'll have to see if we've got anything extra in the tank as a team," said Earnhardt, who needs a finish of 32nd or better (without leading a lap) on Saturday to lock himself into the Chase. "We're going to be up against tough competition.
"But I've raced all these guys for a long time, and I feel like we belong in the Chase, feel like if we can put 10 races together. I think we can do it as good as anybody when it comes down to it. Hopefully, we can make it happen."
By Reid Spencer - NASCAR Wire Service