Gordon needs a win, but he'll have tough competition at Brickyard
Jeff Gordon is quickly running out of chances to be a Chase contender
Coming in second last year, Juan Pablo Montoya could pull an upset on Sunday
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is poised for a breakthrough before season's end
The streak is at 49 now, stretching on for well over a season. Several times in 2010 Jeff Gordon has been close to ending the longest victory drought of his 18-year Cup career -- he's authored five straight top-5 runs -- but the 39-year-old still hasn't been swigging champagne in the winner's circle since April 5, 2009, at Texas Motor Speedway.
Yet Gordon is very much a threat to win his fifth Cup championship this season. Currently second in the standings behind Kevin Harvick, Gordon has been as consistent as any other driver in the series over the last two months. But given that Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin already have five wins in 2010 -- and that each win translates into a 10-point bonus that will carry into the Chase, when the points are reset -- time is running out for Gordon. Because even he acknowledges that the odds of surmounting a 50-point deficit in the Chase are long.
"It's definitely getting down to crunch time for us getting in the Chase," Gordon says. "It's not just about where we're at in points now; we need those bonus points to really prove to ourselves and everyone else that we can compete for this championship. I can't think of a better place to get 10 of those bonus points than this weekend at the Brickyard."
Indeed, Gordon will be one of the favorites to win the Brickyard 400 Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Gordon owns a series-best five wins. With a little luck, Gordon already would have at least three wins this year. Consider:
At Las Vegas on Feb. 28, he dominated the field, leading a race-high 219 laps. But late in the race he lost track position when crew chief Steve Letarte called for four tires when other crew chiefs called for two during a caution; Gordon ended up finishing third behind winner Johnson and Harvick.
At Phoenix on April 10, Gordon held the lead late. But then he flubbed a late-race restart, lost the lead to Ryan Newman and never him. Gordon came in second.
At Texas on April 19, Gordon led a race-high 124 laps and clearly had the best car in the field. But he got caught up in a wreck with 17 laps remaining and finished 31st.
"I'd like to get back to being more dominant," Gordon said. "That's what's going to get us back into Victory Lane. I feel like we're right there, though. We're just so close."
Yes, Gordon is. I think he'll be close again Sunday, but ultimately come up short to the driver who I still believe will be your 2010 Sprint Cup champion.
Along with Gordon, here are the drivers who I'll be watching closely on Sunday.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Johnson is the two-time defending winner of this race. There are few fluke winners at Indy; teams always bring their best equipment to the Brickyard because the race is viewed as one of NASCAR's majors. Also, the top drivers normally rise at the sport's most hallowed track. Until proven otherwise, Johnson, the four-time defending series champ, remains the man to beat here. He's my pick to win Sunday.
2. Juan Pablo Montoya
Montoya dominated this race last year, which was a harbinger of his surprisingly strong performance in the Chase. But after never being passed on the track when the green flag was out, Montoya lost the lead on his final pit stop when he was busted for speeding on pit road. He finished second to Johnson. Still, Montoya loves this track -- he was always fast here in Indy cars and in Formula One cars -- and he could be an upset winner on Sunday.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
This is big race for Earnhardt. Currently 13th in the standings, he trails Clint Bowyer by 15 points for the final spot that advances to the Chase.
On Sunday Earnhardt will be driving a new car that crew chief Lance McGrew has been working on for months. Last year McGrew built a car specifically for Indy and the result was impressive: Earnhardt, after struggling for months, qualified second and then ran no lower than ninth for 127 of 160 laps before his engine blew.
Just a hunch, but after spending time with Earnhardt and his crew recently, I think this team is poised for a breakout. It may not come this weekend, but I'd be surprised if Earnhardt doesn't win at least one race between now and when the regular seasons ends at Richmond (Va.) on Sept. 11.
4. Matt Kenseth
The struggles of Roush Fenway Racing continue, as no Roush driver has reached Victory Lane in over a year. Can that streak be broken Sunday? Well, a Roush Ford has never won at the Brickyard -- in fact, a Ford hasn't taken the checkers here since 1999 with Dale Jarrett -- but keep an eye on Kenseth, who's eighth in the standings.
Kenseth has finished second at Indy twice in his career (2003 and '06) and like all the Roush Fords this weekend, he'll have the new FR9 engine under his hood. So far the engine has given the Roush drivers an extra boost of horsepower. Will it be enough to end the team's victory drought? Eventually it will, but probably not this weekend.
5. Tony Stewart
Stewart grew up in nearby Columbus, Ind., which makes the Brickyard his home track and this race the most important of his season. He's fared well here in the past. He won the '05 and '07 Brickyard 400s and he finished third in this event last season. Though he has yet to win this year after recording four victories in 2009, he's been among the most consistent drivers on the circuit in the last two months. He's finished outside of the top 10 only once in the last six races.
Don't be surprised if he's in contention late. Ultimately, though, it says here he'll be chasing Johnson. After all, Johnson's late-season surges traditionally start in the heart of Indiana.
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