The last time Jeff Gordon headed to Charlotte Motor Speedway, his deficit in the Sprint Cup Series points manifested itself in a strikingly tangible form.
Gordon, the four-time series champion, was mired in the throes of several subpar finishes and horrible racing luck that relegated him to 24th place in the points heading to the final weekend in May. Once the Sprint Cup haulers arrived in Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600, his status in the bottom half of the standings was underscored by the parking place reserved for Gordon's transporter -- on the opposite side of the garage from the series' front-runners.
How times have changed.
|Gordon in the Chase|
Gordon will be solidly on the right side of the garage in the series' return to Charlotte for Saturday night's Bank of America 500 (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC), the fifth round of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup. The track has been the site of Gordon's first Cup win and four more that followed, but only one of those Charlotte triumphs (October 2007) has come in the past 13 years.
For now, Gordon is just happy to have more to show for his efforts this season. Since his low-water mark in May, Gordon has rallied to get into the Chase, snatching the final wild-card playoff berth with a clutch performance at Richmond last month.
Gordon stubbed his toe out of the gate with a 35th-place run at Chicagoland in the Chase opener but has finished third, second and second in the three races that have followed. His most recent runner-up finish, secured after avoiding a colossal last-lap pileup at Talladega, helped him jump four spots in the standings to sixth, 42 points behind series leader Brad Keselowski.
"That's what I love about the way our season has been," Gordon said. "While it's thrown some curveballs at us and it hasn't been the kind of season that we hoped for, we've also been dealt with a lot of adversity and had to overcome some tough finishes -- some in our control, some out of our control. I think it's made us a much stronger team. It either breaks you down and tears you apart, or it makes you stronger."
Despite the recent show of strength, Gordon still has substantial ground to make up in hunting down the standings' powerful top three. Keselowski, winner of two of the first three Chase races, holds a 14-point lead over five-time series champ Jimmie Johnson, while New Hampshire winner Denny Hamlin sits third, 23 points off the top.
Neither Brad Keselowski nor Denny Hamlin, the top two drivers in the standings, have a Charlotte victory in their Cup portfolio, but third-place Jimmie Johnson is tied atop the all-time list (with NASCAR Hall of Famers Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip) with six career wins at the 1.5-mile speedway.
Austin Dillon still standing
For all the attention that Elliott Sadler and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. have gathered in their 1-2 fight for the Nationwide Series title, Austin Dillon doesn't mind being left out of the headlines.
"All year long, they've kind of kept us there as the third guy, but it's nice -- they don't know when we're coming, I guess," Dillon said. "It's a place that you have nothing to lose because no one expects it. We're the underdog, I guess, and we'll just go after it every week like we're going to have a chance to win the race. ... This is our rookie year, and we're having fun. Giving ourselves a chance to win a championship is unheard of."
Dillon's historic quest to become a first-year champion in a NASCAR national series continues in Friday night's Dollar General 300 (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). Just five races remain for him potentially to break the Sadler-Stenhouse stronghold and shed his role as the Nationwide tour's third wheel.
Dillon sits 25 points behind points leader and Richard Childress Racing teammate Sadler, a four-time winner this season. Stenhouse, who has five victories in 2012, is just nine points behind Sadler and 16 ahead of the lurking Dillon in a bid for consecutive Nationwide crowns before making the leap to Sprint Cup.
None of the top three have won at Charlotte, but all have won at 1.5-mile facilities this season. Of the three, Stenhouse has been the most prolific at intermediate-size tracks, with wins at Las Vegas, Texas, Atlanta and Chicagoland. He'll drive the same car he won with at Atlanta, where he stunned race-long dominator Kevin Harvick with a last-lap pass.