Four races into the Chase and Jeff Gordon’s “Drive for Five” has stalled again.
Credited with a 34th-place finish after a blown engine at Kansas, the four-time NASCAR champion fell to 10th in the latest Sprint Cup standings.
Even after calculations of the new points system versus the old one, Gordon’s deficit isn’t as daunting as the 278-point margin which eventual champion Alan Kulwicki trailed with six races to go in 1992.
Kulwicki famously stated his championship hopes were done following his bad run at Dover, only to come back and win the title at the last race of the season at Atlanta.
However, a major difference between then and now is the Chase format. Kulwicki trailed only three drivers — Bill Elliott, Davey Allison and Harry Gant — heading into his stretch run. Compare that to now, when Gordon finds himself a full race behind leaders Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson.
Even to get to those top three, Gordon would still have to pass Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and both Busch brothers.
It is frustrating to Gordon, still looking for a first title under the Chase format.
Since winning a fourth NASCAR Cup Series title in 2001, Gordon has five top-five points finishes, including a runner-up to Johnson in 2007. Twice he has led the points heading into the 10-race Chase, but that 2007 season with 30 top-10 finishes in 36 races was the closest he came to closing the deal.
On the other hand, Johnson reassumed the favorite’s role after leading the most laps in back-to-back weeks at Dover and Kansas.
The five-time defending series champion is now four points behind leader Edwards and three points behind Harvick. Looking at the upcoming schedule, it certainly stacks up nicely for the No. 48 Chevrolet driver.
Johnson leads all active drivers with six wins at Charlotte, the site of Saturday night’s race, although Harvick was the most recent winner at the Coca-Cola 600 in May.
The series then heads to the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway where Johnson has two wins, including the Aaron’s 499 in April. The next week, the Cup Series goes from its biggest track to its smallest, the paper clip-shaped short track at Martinsville.
It is without a doubt Johnson’s best track, a place where he has six wins among his 17 top-10 finishes in 19 starts. He averages a fifth-place finish there, compared to 16th-place averages for both Edwards and Harvick. While Harvick is the most recent Martinsville winner, it’s one of Edwards’ worst tracks, with just one top-five in 14 starts.
Despite those numbers, Edwards and Harvick are at this point ahead of the pack. Overall, you have to consider eight drivers very much alive in the championship battle. The last one is Kyle Busch, who is 20 points behind leader Edwards and one point behind Stewart, the winner of the first two Chase races.
For the remaining drivers in the Chase — Gordon, Ryan Newman, Earnhardt and Denny Hamlin — the goal at this point has to be simply win races and let the points fall as they may.
n Only three races remain in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship playoffs, and Greeneville Pro Stock driver Allen Johnson looks to improve on his eighth-place standing in the points.
Johnson enters this weekend’s national event at Phoenix 53 points out of fifth and 88 markers out of third.
“We have to be really aggressive these last three races,” he said. “We are shooting for that top-three. We are well within striking distance and we are going to do everything we can to get it.”
The Team Mopar veteran was victorious at Firebird Raceway in 2005 and reached the semifinals at the Arizona track last season. He was the No. 1 qualifier at Phoenix in 2008 and has been among the four fastest drivers in qualifying in each of his past three visits to the track.
Johnson, who won earlier this season at the NHRA Supernationals in New Jersey, has earned three No. 1 qualifier awards this season and has been among the top half of the field qualifying in 17 of 19 events.
Testing a new Dodge Avenger this week at Tulsa (Okla.) Dragway, Johnson feels confident about racing on a hot, slick track at Phoenix.
“We’ve always had a good set-up for hot conditions,” said Johnson, a nine-time national event winner. “We’re looking to continue that with the new car, and the testing we are doing this week will certainly help us with that. We have a veteran team, and can adapt to different weather conditions pretty well.”
n Muddy Creek Raceway hosts its biggest event of the eyar, the 24th annual Suzuki Top Gun Showdown, this weekend. Friday is scheduled for practice with two motos for each class on Saturday and the main event on Sunday.
It will be a double-point day on Sunday as both the Mega and Ultra Series wind up their seasons.
n Although he’s best known these days as a mentor to Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, Wade Day proved he’s still one of the best local race car drivers this past Saturday night at Newport Speedway.
Day, a former Elizabethton resident who now lives in Sevierville, won three of four 50-lap features to easily walk away with the Davey Crockett 200 trophy.
Wayne Webb won the second of four features after Day was spun and finished 14th. It was no problem the next race when Day charged through the field from a 14th starting spot to win race No. 3.
After the top seven spots were inverted for the final 50-lap feature, Day once again charged through the field for the victory.
Jeff Birchfield is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.