BROOKLYN, Mich. – In mid-June, with roughly three months remaining until the Chase for the Nextel Cup begins, it's a stretch to claim any race is a must-win.
But for Jeff Gordon, Sunday's show here at Michigan is pretty damn close.
The NASCAR world took notice last season when popular stars Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. both failed to make the Chase. Junior is in solid shape this year, but the same can't be said for Gordon.
Sure, he's 11th in standings, just 25 points out of that all-important 10th spot. But after a relatively strong start to the season, Gordon has struggled over the last three races – crashing in two of them – which somewhat mirrors the beginning of the slide that helped cost him a spot in last year's Chase.
The wrecks can be attributed partly to mechanical failure and bad luck, but there is another story here.
Gordon has run at or near the front early in each of the last three races (leading two of them), only to lose the handle on his car and drift back through the field. In the one race he didn't wreck in, Gordon finished 12th at Dover despite leading 81 laps.
In other words, he's been good enough to get to the front. He just hasn't been able to stay there.
Gordon gets yet another opportunity to try to stay up front Sunday after qualifying second for the 3M Performance 400, continuing a string of strong qualifying efforts for the team this season.
Of course, it's not where you start …
Gordon explains that his No. 24 car falling back through the field isn't just due to having problems keeping up with changing track conditions.
"We've been giving up too much track position," Gordon said. "The car starts to fall off and I'm asking for certain adjustments and Steve [crew chief Steve Letarte] is … making those adjustments, and we're giving up track position to do it. You just can't give it up as much as we have been."
Gordon cites last weekend's race at Pocono, where he ran in the top five early before slipping toward the back of the top 20. The freefall came after the team made adjustments in an effort to improve the car and compete for the win.
"We lost track position and never regained it," said Gordon, who eventually crashed out.
Part of the reason Gordon has been unable to regain those positions is that the changes being made to the cars aren't always helping.
Letarte explains that the team has made so many chassis changes in the past year or so that the obvious fixes that used to improve the car during a race no longer work.
"You can take all those notebooks and all the stuff you had from the middle of last year and before and throw them out," Letarte said. "None of that applies anymore.
"Two or three years ago with a conventional setup there were things we keyed on that made perfect sense. Now we need to find that same sort of baseline, the same sort of root adjustments that seem to always work."
Having taken the helm from Robbie Loomis last year, Letarte is in his first full season as Gordon's crew chief, and it can take time for a crew chief to develop good communication with his driver.
Miscommunication between driver and crew chief can conceivably lead to the types of problems the No. 24 has been having, but Letarte says that hasn't been the issue.
"When I'm on top of the pit box during the race, I feel like I'm riding with him," Letarte said. "Our communication is to the point where I know exactly what he's feeling. The problem is we can't fix it for him sometimes, and I'll take the blame for that."
It's something that the team is working on. Letarte says the first step is to find the speed, and the second is to figure out how to properly adjust the car.
With the strong qualifying efforts and early runs at some of the bigger and faster tracks, it's clear the No. 24 pretty much has that first part down.
It's also evidenced by the relative lack of changes the team needs to make between qualifying and race day.
"We're changing one shock, one spring, one this, one that," Letarte said. "We [aren't] putting it up on jack stands and taking everything out of it, and that's what we had been doing sometimes in the past."
That has made Fridays and Saturdays at the track a little more straightforward. And Sundays, Letarte says, will follow suit.
"We're in the first wave of it," he said. "Now … we have a basic setup we can show up with at all these big high-speed tracks and be consistent."
Besides, if the wrong adjustments are made, Letarte knows he gets to go out the next weekend and try again. He also points out the number of times this season when the team has taken a mediocre car and improved it enough for a strong finish.
"Out of the first 13 or 14 races I could probably give you eight or nine that the adjustments have been all the right way," Letarte said. "It just seems like the ones that have gone the wrong way maybe are when we had the best cars and seem to just glow the most."
Despite having fallen out of the top 10, Letarte says it's no time to panic. Sure, there are other teams that have stronger programs on these big tracks right now, but Letarte believes his team is moving in the right direction.
With that, there is no extra urgency surrounding Sunday's race – at least no more than has existed all season.
Letarte admits there maybe have been a few more sleepless nights when the team has struggled, but he maintains the team's goals haven't changed all year and they remain focused on those goals.
In other words, no drastic measures are required.
"If we can do anything different now that we weren't doing five weeks ago, shame on us for not doing it five weeks ago," Letarte said.
Many have made note of Gordon slipping out of the top 10. But there still are 12 races remaining before the Chase field is set, meaning it's way too early to worry about points.
"If you get looking at that points race any time other than the final lap at Richmond, you're letting it affect your decisions," Letarte said. "If you aren't going out to win the first 26 races of the season, you're going to be behind because there are other teams that are [trying to win each week].
"You can't call a conservative race. There are too many good teams, too many well-funded teams that are going for the wins. If you become conservative, the next thing you know you're 20th, and that's like a DNF anymore."
This team expects to finish better than 20th on Sunday. Much better.
In 26 career Cup starts at the two-mile oval, Gordon has won twice and amassed a total of 17 top-10 finishes.
But he also has qualified well here over the last two years – including a pole and two second-place starts – and has turned those into just one top-10 and two finishes in the 30s.
Letarte knows that this team has a lot of expertise on short tracks. Now Michigan presents Gordon and Co. another opportunity to show the progress they've made on the bigger, faster tracks.
"This is a race track where we can really challenge ourselves," Gordon said. "It's big, fast, very smooth. We should be able to push the limits a little more.
"I've been looking forward to coming here. If we can make some improvements here, it's really going to say a lot about our program, the things that we're learning, the direction we're headed in."
Letarte agrees that this team has a chance to show its stuff and could be, in fact, on the verge of a breakthrough of sorts.
"That's how you have to look at it," he said. "It's really important for us to come here and be competitive.
"The key is to keep fighting. It's just as easy for the guy – the 9 sitting over here [polesitter Kasey Kahne] has won [three] poles and all these races – for them to admit that they're flying. They're great. But as soon as they roll back on their heels, time is going to pass them by, and they know it.
"That's how they are going to stay ahead, and that's the same way we have to keep fighting week in and week out."
So is Sunday a must-win situation? Not quite, but close.
Letarte admits a good result is important Sunday, but that's no different from any other race.
"It's extremely important [to do well at Michigan]," he said. "It's important to finish well every week.
"We'd love to win [Sunday]. I think we have the team and the driver that can do it. If we could go out, be competitive, lead laps and finish in the top five, I'd be extremely pleased at a high-speed track like this.
"We need a top-10 [but] I'd love to have a top-five."