Gordon's winless streak could end under the lights at Darlington
Jeff Gordon is finally running a car that can compete with Jimmie Johnson
Gordon is looking to end a 38-race winless streak with a victory at Darlington
With two career wins at the track, Greg Biffle could challenge Gordon and Johnson
Is this the week?
Jeff Gordon hasn't won a race in more than 13 months, but he's led more laps this season (599) than any other driver and he's finished in the top three four times. Last Saturday at Richmond he had the dominant car for most of the night, but faltered on a late-race restart and was passed by Kyle Busch, who went on to take the checkered flag.
"Even though we finished third in the points last year, I don't feel we were nearly as competitive as we are right now," Gordon said after coming in second at Richmond. "That's what I'm excited about. We're leading laps, a bunch of laps, at a lot of different types of tracks. I think our team is really on top of our game."
Indeed, it's hard to argue with Gordon. He arguably had the fastest car at Las Vegas, Martinsville, Phoenix, Talladega and Richmond, but was undone by horrible luck (he got wrecked at 'Dega), questionable late-race pit calls (see his decision to take two tires at Las Vegas while Jimmie Johnson took four to steal the win), and struggles on a late-race restart (see Richmond). Yet this team is clearly championship caliber. It's taken longer than expected, but Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte appear to finally be operating at the same level as Johnson and Chad Knaus as evidenced by one thing: Week in and week out, the No. 24 Chevy flashes more speed than any other car in the garage.
This weekend, the Sprint Cup circuit stops at Darlington Raceway for a Saturday night race. This has a Gordon win written all over it. At the track known as "The Lady in Black," Gordon has finished in the top five in his last five starts and has seven career wins. Because of Darlington's unusual layout -- when Harold Brasington was building the track in the late 1940s, he was forced to work around a pond that belonged to a farmer on an adjoining property, resulting in much tighter turns on the eastern end of the track -- veterans who have turned a lot of laps here tend to do well.
With that said, Gordon should end his drought with a victory on Saturday night.
Here are five other drivers to keep an eye on once the engines fire:
1. Kyle Busch
He has a history of winning races in bunches. He took the checkered flag here in 2008 and tends to perform well on tight, fast tracks. Recently engaged and now owning a team in the truck series, Busch is displaying newfound patience behind the wheel. He's no longer an all-or-nothing driver, which should pay dividends in the Chase, when consistency becomes the key to winning the championship.
2. Mark Martin
The old man has been oddly quiet this season. A year after finishing second in the points, the 51-year-old Martin is winless in 2010 and has only led 42 laps. Are his skills starting to diminish before our eyes? I don't think so, because he has authored a few nice races this season, including a fifth-place run last month at Talladega, his least favorite track on the schedule. Martin won at Darlington last season, so expect him to contend Saturday night.
3. Greg Biffle
Biffle is another driver who seems to be on the cusp of a breakthrough. He's shown impressive speed lately, but has little to show for it; he hasn't finished higher than 10th in his last five starts. Yet he's been the fastest driver in the Roush Fenway stable this season and has two career wins at Darlington, which is one of his best tracks on the circuit.
4. Jimmie Johnson
The talk in the garage is that Johnson looks more vulnerable this year than in past seasons. I wouldn't go there just yet. This team always peaks in September, not May, so it's a little early to write the obituary on Johnson's championship run. A two-time winner at Darlington, Johnson is expected to lead plenty of laps.
5. Denny Hamlin
No other driver has benefited more from the addition of the rear spoiler than Hamlin, who has scored more points than anyone since the rear wings were replaced on March 28 at Martinsville. As of right now, I'd say Hamlin has the best chance of anyone to dethrone Johnson, even though Hamlin is racing with a recently reconstructed left knee, which he injured in a pickup basketball game in the offseason.
In four career starts at Darlington, Hamlin hasn't finished lower than 13th. He seems to get better and better at this place, so I think he'll be a factor as the laps wind down. Still, my hunch is that Gordon gets it done under the lights Saturday night.