COMMENTARY | Almost as soon as Jeff Gordon's race at Michigan International Speedway had begun last weekend, it was over.
Just a few laps into the race Sunday, Bobby Labonte, driving the 51 car, was spinning out, Gordon had to choose a way around and he guessed wrong, destroying the No. 24 car in the process.
The result: He tumbled from 11th in points (and having a Chase berth coming into the Michigan race) all the way to 16th in points, 19 points back from 10th.
Gordon talked about the MIS accident and his overall frustration on Sunday after the race.
"Bobby Labonte just lost it over there in Turn 2. He just did one of those slow spins where I couldn't tell which direction he was going to go, so I had to guess and I guessed the wrong way. I didn't really have anywhere to go," Gordon explained. "But I just can't believe the way this season is going for us in this Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet. It seems like we can run all day long when we can't get the car right but when we finally get the car right, something like this happens. At Charlotte, I thought our car was awesome and I was really pleased with the way the car took off right there. We were really going to march up through the field. It's unfortunate. This team just continues to have to face adversity and I appreciate how strong they are during it, but I just wish we didn't all have to be tested quite this much."
The key point to recognize in all this is why this happened -- Jeff Gordon was running back in the pack near Bobby Labonte and the 51 car. That simply should not be happening when you are driving for Rick Hendrick and are a four-time champion.
Terrible yearTo say 2013 has been a tough year for Jeff Gordon would be an extreme understatement. In 15 races so far, he has zero wins, 3 top-5 runs, 4 top-10 runs and no poles. While it's possible he could still move up in points and make the Chase by being in the top 10, most likely he'll need to win to get in the Chase. And once you get in, anything can happen, as Tony Stewart showed in 2011, so Gordon's goal is pretty clear now: Make the Chase.
If there is anywhere these next couple months that it is likely Gordon will win, it is at Sonoma this coming Sunday. He is one of the few drivers in the modern era who has shown himself to be truly gifted at driving on road courses (Tony Stewart, Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin are among the others).
A lot of Cup drivers dread going to the road courses and just hope to get through the weekend with a decent finish and stay out of trouble. Not Jeff Gordon. The four-time Cup champion has led more laps at Sonoma than any active driver (450 laps) over his 20 starts there.
He has won five races, five poles, has 12 top-5 runs and 16 top-10 runs at Sonoma.
In a nutshell, he's always fast at Sonoma. And most other drivers are not at his level when it comes to driving on a road course. True, there will be some road-course ringers in the field, but they are often in weaker equipment and likely can't compete for wins due to this equipment gap, despite having perhaps more road course driving talent. (Gordon will have to avoid the ever-present chrome horn of Jacques Villeneuve, who will bring his often ill-mannered driving approach to the Sonoma track in, ironically, the 51 car)
Gordon's recent struggles give me some pause, but when I remember how well he knows his way around this place, I have no trouble saying Jeff Gordon is a favorite (along with Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya and Marcos Ambrose) to win this weekend at Sonoma. And I'm pretty sure his competitors wouldn't argue with that assessment.
Add in the fact that he's hell-bent on turning his luck around and trying to get his first win of the season, and you have a hungry driver at a track he had dominated at in the past. That's a good recipe in my book.
Qualifying a concern
Gordon recognizes that a key to running better is that he has to qualify higher up in the field. He talked about that on Sunday after his accident.
"For years I've always said I don't believe in good luck or bad luck that you make it. Just in that instance right there I call that being at the wrong place at the wrong time, but I also know that we contribute to where we started. We started back there and we were moving forward which I'm proud of, but the fact that we are back there. I put as much blame on myself. I really struggled this weekend when we went into qualifying trim. I've struggled all year. Shoot, the last two years with qualifying and I don't know what it is, but we have to get it better. Starting back there you are only putting yourself into those positions to have those kinds of things happen."
That's especially true at a road course. If Gordon hopes to contend on Sunday, a strong starting position will be essential.
He's up to the challenge though, as a fired-up Gordon said after his wreck Sunday that he's got plenty of fight left in him this season.
"I'm a pretty patient person, but it's testing my frustration level and my confidence that is the biggest thing. We all know how big confidence is in this sport, any sport really. I don't want to see the team get down and I don't want to see myself get down. I have a lot of fight in me and so does this team. I'm looking forward to going to Sonoma."
It may not be Jeff Gordon's year so far, but with that kind of attitude and Hendrick equipment behind him, you can bet he'll do everything he can to be one of the top cars to beat at Sonoma.
And even if he's currently not up to the level of teammate Jimmie Johnson or even Kasey Kahne or Dale Earnhardt Jr. this season, a win at Sonoma could be that momentum booster that gets him back into being a legitimate Chase-caliber driver in 2013.
Matt Myftiu lives in Michigan, has been a walking encyclopedia of NASCAR since immersing himself in the sport over 15 years ago, and has worked as a journalist for two decades. His blog on the sport, NASCAR: Beyond the Track, has been published by The Oakland Press for the past 5 years. Follow him on Twitter @MattMyftiu.
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- Jeff Gordon
- Bobby Labonte
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