An exhausted Jeff Gordon had just settled into his chair for his post-race interview at Daytona when he was asked about being second in the Sprint Cup Series standings.
"I'm second?" he asked. "Really? I don't believe it."
Indeed he is, which shouldn't be all that surprising considering he has10 top-10 finishes through the first 18 races this season. Alas, the four-time series champion is winless, and that's got to change if he's going to contend for his fifth Cup title.
As Gordon heads into the 600th consecutive Cup start of his career Saturday night at Chicagoland Speedway, he's all too aware that he's been to victory lane just one time in his last 95 points races.
"I'm excited that we're second in points, but I'll be honest with you, all I look at is where we are with wins right now," he said.
There was a time in his illustrious career when Gordon couldn't avoid victory lane, winning 16.1 percent of the time through the first 15 years of his career. But since 2008, that number has been reduced to 13.7.
It's been 47 races since Gordon's last win, and though he's racked up eight runner-up finishes since then, he's faced questions about his ability to close the deal. Even worse, after Gordon feuded briefly with Jimmie Johnson earlier this season, analyst and team owner Brad Daugherty said that Johnson's success the last four years has made Gordon "almost irrelevant."
While I was definitely one of those wondering if the soon-to-be 39-year-old had lost something when he was losing races on final restarts earlier this season, I vehemently disagreed with the idea of "irrelevant," especially when Gordon's career numbers are still astounding:
• He's tied for third with Johnson and stands behind only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt in championships.
• He's just three wins away from moving into third on the all-time victories list, with his 82 wins ranking behind only Petty (200), David Pearson (105), Bobby Allison (84), Darrell Waltrip (84) and Cale Yarborough (83).
• He has 68 poles, 12 victories in restrictor-plate races and nine on road courses. He has 12 combined wins at Bristol and Martinsville, seven at Darlington, and has won at every track on the circuit but one (Homestead-Miami).
In other words, he's pretty damn good.
If Gordon never wins another race and never completes the "drive for five" campaign launched in 2002, his career will not be diminished. He'll walk away before he's ever a faded star simply turning laps at the back of the field, and he's got too much pride and competitive spirit to do anything but race hard in pursuit of wins.
And that's all he's focused on as he heads into Saturday night's race: knowing he needs some wins before the Chase begins. As it stands now, he'd be in a 50-point hole to Johnson and Denny Hamlin when the field is reset, and Gordon's got to cut into the deficit during the next eight races.
"When you're positioned well in the Chase, like we are currently, then it comes down to wins and being seeded when that Chase comes around," he said. "That's really more what's on our mind right now. It's about what we've got to do to win a championship. I feel like we've got to get a few wins before that Chase starts."
Here are four other burning issues headed into Chicago:
No, and what started as a rumored possibility in the garage has somehow taken on a life of its own this week.
Nobody can deny that as Martin heads into Chicago, where he held off Gordon last season for the fourth of his five wins, he's not running as well as he was a year ago. And there's that whole Kasey Kahne problem that Rick Hendrick must figure out sometime over the next several weeks.
So, it's easy to understand why there would be some credence to the possibility of Martin moving out of the No. 5 at the end of the year so that Kahne can have the ride a year early. And Red Bull, where he has existing relationships with general manager Jay Frye and crew chief Ryan Pemberton, would be an easy fit.
The only problem is that Martin has adamantly maintained that he'll be back in the No. 5 next year, and he's not once wavered from that. In fact, he seems pretty perturbed by the speculation and tired of being asked where he'll be driving next year.
And that's fair. After all, Martin made a two-year commitment to Hendrick last season when the team signed GoDaddy.com to sponsor the No. 5. He agreed to drive 38 races a year for Rick Hendrick through 2011, and it's got to be maddening that his plans are constantly being questioned.
But that falls squarely on Hendrick, who so badly wanted Kahne that he signed him to the No. 5 for 2012 with the promise that he'll figure out where Kahne will drive next season. Settling this issue and finding Kahne a seat is the only way to silence the speculation about this situation, and only Hendrick can do that.
During the April 14 announcement of Kahne's signing, Hendrick said, "We should have something done in the next 90 days for sure." Well, the clock is ticking, Mr. H, and you're the only one who can get Martin out of the rumor mill.
The initial thought after the Kahne signing was that Hendrick would stash his newest driver at Stewart-Haas Racing, which has an alliance with Hendrick Motorsports.
Stewart, though, said this week that there is "probably a zero-percent chance" his organization will expand to three teams next season. That leaves him a seat short to loan to Kahne.
Stewart is handcuffed by sponsorship woes that he's so far been unable to overcome. He's yet to sell off sponsorship of Ryan Newman's car, making this the second season in which sponsorship was needed for the No. 39, and next season Stewart also must replace the 14 races that Old Spice currently covers on his car.
"We're still trying to fill the void when Old Spice changes this year," he said. "We're talking to a lot of great people. There's a lot of good opportunities out there. It's just a matter of finding a package that works for somebody to fill our spot.
"The hard part about it is, it just takes funding. We could be up to a four-car team very quickly. But it takes the funding to get it done."
It's possible that Hendrick could fund a third car for Kahne out of his pocket – how great would a City Chevrolet sponsorship, à la "Days of Thunder" look? – but right now it's not looking probable for SHR to be a factor in the resolution.
Stewart, by the way, has jumped from 18th to ninth in the points standings over the last seven races and goes into Chicago focused mostly on securing his spot in the Chase.
This season has shaped up as a year of crossing things off Johnson's to-do list, from winning for the first time at Bristol to grabbing his first road-course victory and knocking off everything else he's yet to do in his Cup career.
So next on the list is Chicago, one of only four active tracks where he's yet to win.
That's surprising considering his 8.125-average finish is best among active drivers, and he's got five top-five finishes in eight career starts. When Johnson won as a rookie at California, which he considers his home track, crew chief Chad Knaus set his sights on winning at Chicago, which is considered the home track for the Rockford, Ill., native.
"Chicago is on my list," Johnson admitted. "Chad has asked me since I won in California for my first race, if we could win in his home state so he could experience that. We have been very, very close. I feel we've got a good chance there and certainly hope to.
"It's nice to cross off these tracks – tracks I haven't won at. I'd love to try to beat Jeff at something, and I know he's sitting there waiting for one [at Chicago]."
Also of note is that Johnson became a father on Wednesday when wife Chandra gave birth to their daughter. The couple struggled with a name, and Johnson was calling her "Baby J" as he prepared for Chicago.
Should he win Saturday night, Joliet may just fit for Baby J.
So maybe it's time for Roush-Fenway Racing to start leaning on the No. 9 a bit.
Kahne has been spot on since at least Pocono, where a late incident with Richard Petty Motorsports teammate AJ Allmendinger dropped him to a 27th-place finish and almost sent his car over the outside retaining wall. But since then, he's got two runner-up finishes, a fourth-place finish and led 110 laps at New Hampshire before an engine failure ended his race.
Ranked 23rd in points after Pocono, he's now 16th in the standings and a Chase contender.
So why doesn't RFR, which is clearly struggling this season with all four of its teams, figure out what Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis are doing and try to mimic it? RFR has a tight technical alliance with RPM, which was largely thought to be mostly for the benefit of RPM.
But now it seems clear that RPM has something to offer the Roush group, and although Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards are currently inside the top 12, they aren't going to be there for long if they don't start running better. As it stands, Biffle is 10th, Edwards is 12th and Martin, Clint Bowyer, Newman and Kahne are all knocking on the door.
The No. 9 team proved last year that it can function as an individual unit and doesn't need to work as part of an overall organizational partner. That doesn't mean they can't or won't work with others, and Roush's teams would be wise to ask for some help right now.
- Rick Hendrick