Thursday, June 7, 2012

Jeff Gordon goes from Wonder Boy to Underdog ... and picks

They used to call him "Wonder Boy". Now he's more like Underdog.
That's because halfway through NASCAR's regular season, Jeff Gordon is going to need some help if he is to make NASCAR's version of the playoffs, the Chase for the Championship.
Gordon's career statistics don't have the look of an underdog, He has 85 victories and four Sprint Cup titles.
But he's had way more than his share of bad luck this season.
The latest unfortunate circumstance for Gordon occurred Sunday at Dover. He was leading and pulling away from eventual winner, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson. It was obvious that Gordon had the fastest car of the day. As good as Johnson was Sunday while leading 289 of the 400 laps, Gordon was better.
But a loose left rear wheel brought Gordon into the pits. He had to surrender the lead and surrender to the idea of being the victim of circumstance yet again. Gordon was able to stay out during a long green flag run, so he took the lead during green flag pit stops. But the tire issue put him off sequence with the rest of the field. Sometimes that works out and sometimes it doesn't.
And of course, for Gordon, it didn't Sunday.
"It's always more frustrating when you've got a car that can win and you show it by going up there and taking the lead," Gordon said Sunday. "We don't care about finishing in the top 15 or top 10 right now. That does nothing for us. We need wins."

So now, Gordon sits 21st in the points standings. He has one top five and three top 10 finishes in these first 13 races. And he's also accumulated 10 bonus points for leading laps in races. Every other driver with 10 or more bonus points would qualify for the Chase at the moment.
That tells us that Gordon has been fast. But for whatever the reason, he's not been able to stay fast.
Here's a rundown of results and what happened to him during each of the first 13 races this season.
Daytona: Engine blows up after 81 laps. He did lead one lap and finished 40th.
Phoenix: Solid finish of eighth. Also led one lap.
Las Vegas: An OK finish of 12th. Did lead two laps
Bristol: 35th. Was battling for fifth when he was clipped by teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and sent into the wall. Did lead a lap early in the race.
California: 26th. Was running in top 5 when gas man couldn't get can out, causing a stop and go penalty.
Martinsville: 14th. Led a race-high 329 laps, but chance for win went out the window when he and teammate Jimmie Johnson were bumped out of the lead by Clint Bowyer late in the race.
Texas: 4th. A solid day, where he also led two laps.
Kansas: 21st. First race of the year where he did not lead at least one lap. Was running 9th with 35 to go when engine issues slowed him.
Richmond: 23rd. A cut tire after being hit by Aric Alimrola and bumped into Greg Biffle doomed his day early on.
Talladega: 33rd. Caught up in a nine-car accident after starting on pole
Darlington 35th. Was running in the top 10 much of the race, but night ruined by not one, but two cut tires.
Charlotte: 7th. For once a solid mostly uneventful night for the No. 24.
Dover: 13th. He had the car to win, but that loose tire doomed his chances of seeing Victory Lane.
So, there you have it. He's had pit crew issues, tire issues, accident issue, teammate issues - all kinds of things that have not been his fault.
And yes, given Gordon's past success, there's no doubt of group of NASCAR fans who don't mind seeing him struggle along. But even if you're a Gordon hater, it's hard to deny he's had a remarkable run of simple bad luck.
But here's the thing about being an underdog. While reaching the Chase may not be likely for him at this point, he does have a chance. His cars have been good enough. He easily could have won at Martinsville, Talladega and Dover. So, he's still a good enough driver and this week the Sprint Cup Series is at Pocono, where Gordon won last June. It just might be the right place for good things to start happening for Gordon.

He'll need stretch of top 10 finishes, with a win or two mixed in, in these next 13 races to make the Chase. Gordon sits 55 points behind current Chase qualifier Ryan Newman, who has one win, and 54 points behind teammate Kasey Kahne, who is stalking Newman being just one point behind him and also with one win.
It's fun to watch any race when a driver can come from the back and reach the front.
Gordon and his team are capable of making that happen in the points race this season.
And like him or not, it will be interesting to watch whether it will or not.

So, here's who to watch this Sunday at Pocono, where there is new pavement and the race has been shortened from 500 to 400 miles.

Jimmie Johnson - Wig or not, fastest car or not, he's on too big a roll not to pick. He does have two wins and 14 tops 10s at the Tricky Triangle.
Carl Edwards - He needs a win bad and Pocono comes up at the just the right time. He's got two career wins here and he needs to make it three to get back into the Chase picture.
Jeff Gordon - Yes, I know I just documented his bad luck. Just a feeling it's going to change this week as he has five wins and 17 top five finishes at Pocono.
Denny Hamlin - He has four wins in 12 tries at Pocono.
Brad Keselowski - He's young, but he's also won at Pocono and the Penske cars seem to run well on the big tracks.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda - Dale Earnhardt Jr. Yes, he's been close a few times to breaking his 142-race winless streak for those you snoring at home. Just wasn't amped about him this week, but maybe he'll reach the mountain on Father's Day next week at Michigan, the site of his last victory.

Here's a look at how last week's picks fared in the 400-mile race at Dover.
Jimmie Johnson:  1st. Not the fastest car, but no mistakes either.
Matt Kenseth: 3rd. He was good all day, but couldn't challenge Johnson.
Greg Biffle: 11th. Points leader was OK, but never led a lap at Dover.
Kyle Busch: 29th. Ambushed by a grenade engine.
Martin Truex Jr.: 7th. Did a steady job at Dover, but never a contender to win either.

 Here's a look at my results after 13 races and 65 picks.
  7 wins
22 top fives
29 top 10s

Grade for the week: B-plus. That's six winners in a row counting the All-Star race. Would have been an A week had Busch's engine not blown as he was in the top five much of the first half of the race.
One Last Thing:  It's been a NASCAR Sprint Cup record 30 races since a driver won from the pole. The last driver to start on the pole and win at Pocono was Tony Stewart in 2009.

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