Gordon returns to top 10; next stop…Victory Lane

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Six drivers, eight championships, 180 wins – all separated by 12 points – all competing for one major goal: a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

One step forward, a heckuva lot more steps back.

Until recently, that’s been the road map of Jeff Gordon’s 2013 season. For much of 2013, any signs of momentum have been quickly squashed by trouble and bad luck.

That ninth-place finish at Phoenix that catapulted him into the top 10 in points? It was followed by a 25th at Las Vegas and a 34th at Bristol. That third at Martinsville? The encore was a 38th at Texas. Another third at Darlington? After that, a 35th at Charlotte. And so on, and so forth.

But no more. Gordon has shed those stumbles of late, and finds himself back in the top 10 of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings for the second time this season – and first since Phoenix. Comparatively, his Hendrick Motorsports teammates have set up camp in the top 10 all season long. Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have been in the top 10 in points for all 20 races this season. Kasey Kahne has been ranked in the top 10 for 13 of the 20 weeks.

Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon
Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

Gordon’s recent climb was built on consistency. He finished second at Sonoma, eighth at Kentucky, 10th at Loudon and seventh at Indy – that’s four top 10s in the last five races. He has chipped away at the deficit toward the top 10 necessary for a Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup berth, climbing from 16th five races ago to his current position of 10th.

So after all that, what now? To paraphrase Jake Taylor, the captain of the Cleveland Indians in the classic movie Major League: “Well, then I guess there’s only one thing left to do. … Win the whole freakin’ thing.”

And it starts now. No one has more wins at Pocono than Jeff Gordon. No one has led more laps at Pocono than Jeff Gordon. Sunday’s GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway just might signal the start of Gordon’s victory march to Chicagoland Speedway, the host site of Chase Race No. 1.

Gordon has four top 10s in the last six races at Pocono – two of which were victories. He won this race last year (his sixth win overall at the Tricky Triangle) after starting 27th to become only the third driver to win at Pocono after starting outside the top 25.

And it shouldn’t stop at Pocono. Gordon has 24 wins and a driver rating of 97.3 at the remaining tracks in the Race to the Chase.

Bubble Boys: No One’s Safe Around The Top-10 Radius

Six drivers, eight championships, 180 wins – all separated by 12 points – all competing for one major goal: a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing Ford

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

A scant 12 points separate eighth-place Greg Biffle and 13th-place Brad Keselowski. The names between those two: Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Martin Truex Jr.

A spot in the top 10 is big, especially for those with wins in the “regular season” – something all those names have, with the exception of Keselowski and Gordon.

After race No. 26 at Richmond International Raceway, the top 10 in points will make the Chase. Spots 11 and 12 will go to drivers outside the top 10 with the most wins, provided they are in the top 20. Each Chase driver will have their points reset to 2,000, with three bonus points tacked on for each win during the regular season. One caveat – only the top 10 drivers get the bonus points. Wild Card contenders get shutout.

Three points could be the difference between a championship and runner-up. Famously, in 2011, Carl Edwards finished in a tie with Stewart for the title, but lost on a tie-breaker. One more win in the regular season would have made the difference.

Coincidently, since 2008, five of the six drivers mentioned above have won at Pocono (Truex has not).

With Indy In Rearview Mirror, Johnson Looks For Pocono Sweep

It’s doubtful that Jimmie Johnson has the bitter taste completely out of his mouth. A fifth victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was within his grasp, but all he left the Brickyard with was a runner-up finish and 73 laps led.

Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

Oh, and an even larger points lead, which ballooned to 75 points over second-place Clint Bowyer.

And now Johnson heads to Pocono Raceway, a race track he completely dominated in June during the series’ first trip there. During that event, he led 128 laps and racked up a near-perfect driver rating of 148.1.

Pocono has now joined the likes of Charlotte, Martinsville, Dover, Auto Club and Phoenix among the tracks at which Johnson thrives – almost automatically. The win was his third overall. More recently, Johnson has four top fives in the last five races and six top 10s in the last seven.

He’ll look to become the first driver to sweep Pocono since Denny Hamlin did it as a Sunoco Rookie in 2006. Johnson accomplished the feat in 2004.

Right now, for all intents and purposes, winning is the only thing that matters for Johnson. That 75-point lead will evaporate once the Chase starts and the points are reset. He’s now looking for Chase bonus points

Johnson wants to clinch as early as possible, and it’s something that could happen as early as Watkins Glen in two weeks. Even with a Pocono win, Johnson cannot officially clinch this weekend. There exist mathematical possibilities where Johnson, Matt Kenseth and, say, Kyle Busch fall out of the top 10 and Johnson would be the odd man out of the Wild Card. So as unlikely as that is, it still won’t be official.

Jockeying For The Two Wild Card Spots Is Getting Wild

Tony Stewart and Martin Truex Jr.
Tony Stewart and Martin Truex Jr.

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

In six weeks the standings will be shuffled as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series begins the 10-week Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. The top-10 drivers in points after the Richmond race will be locked in and receive bonus points for each win during the first 26 races, while drivers between 11th and 20th will need wins to claim the two Wild Card spots.

As the series heads to Pocono for the GoBowling.com 400, Tony Stewart and Martin Truex Jr. hold the provisional spots into the Chase. Stewart and Truex currently rank 11th and 12th, respectively, and both have wins this season. Stewart won at Dover, while Truex triumphed at Sonoma.

Ryan Newman is the only other driver between 11th and 20th with a victory, after winning at Indy on Sunday. He is 16th in the standings, only 20 points behind Truex. Brad Keselowski, who is currently one point behind Truex, is also in the running for a Wild Card spot; however, he first needs to win a race.

Of the four, only Truex has never won at Pocono. He has two top fives and five top 10s and finished 23rd in the June race. Stewart has experienced the most success with two wins (2003, 2009) to go along with 12 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes. Newman also won in 2003 and has eight top fives and 11 top 10s. Stewart and Newman finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in June. Keselowski won the August 2011 race and has two top 10s. He finished 16th in his last trip to Pocono.

Earnhardt Needs Win To Protect Chase Birth

Although fifth place in the standings allows Dale Earnhardt Jr. a little bit of wiggle room to ensure that he makes the Chase, a win on Sunday at Pocono would definitely strengthen his case for the postseason and create even more breathing room.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

Earnhardt is one of only three drivers currently in the top 10 without victories this season. Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon are the other two.

In 26 races, Earnhardt has never won at Pocono, however, he has performed admirably there, especially in recent visits. He has four top-10 finishes in his last five race at the 2.5-mile triangular track, including a third-place showing in June.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Etc.

Actor/comedian Dane Cook, who is the star of Disney’s new animated film, Planes, will serve as Grand Marshal on Sunday. A crop duster reflecting the design of Dusty, Cook’s character in the movie, will do the flyover. … If Kevin Harvick finishes in the top 10 on Sunday, it will be the 200th top-10 finish of his career. … The Pocono race will be Ryan Newman’s 425th start in the NSCS. He is currently 47th on the all-time series starts list.

NASCAR

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Series NASCAR-CUP
Article type Preview
Tags bowyer, chase, chevrolet, earnhardt, edwards, ford, gordon, johnson, kahne, keselowski, nascar sprint cup, newman, pocono, stewart, toyota, truex