After 30 races of the NASCAR season and four in its championship battle, it's no surprise that the six drivers who comprise the top of the point standings have scored 20 of this season's wins. It's the cream rising to the top.
But there is one driver who stands as an outlier among those top six in that important win column: Jeff Gordon, the four-time series champion. He's yet to put the No. 24 in Victory Lane this season. If he doesn't before the season ends in six weeks at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Gordon will notch just the third winless season of his career and first since 2010.
Of course Gordon has more riding on this season than just tallying another season of Cup series competition with a win. Thanks to the hand of NASCAR CEO Brian France, Gordon is a member of the Chase for the Sprint Cup field. After the first four postseason events, he's fourth in the standings and 32 points behind leader Matt Kenseth.
Gordon, naturally, wants to get closer to the points lead in order to have a fighting chance at the title. To get there, he's going to need a win.
All signs are pointing to Gordon getting a lot closer to finally breaking through and taking a checkered flag.
First, consider Gordon's mildly hot start to the Chase. He's finished sixth, 15th, fourth and third. He's led three of the starts for a total of 61 laps. He's even shown race-to-race improvement at Kansas, a track where he finished 13th in April and had concerns coming into the weekend.
"When they repaved this track, it just didn't suit my style, and we really struggled," Gordon said Sunday after his Kansas finish. "I mean, I spun out qualifying here. To come out of here with a third place finish, boy, I'm excited."
Gordon's Chase performance hasn't been the only notable uptick in his recent performance. Dating to the July 14 New Hampshire Motor Speedway race, Gordon has notched eight of his 12 best races by average running position. His average finish has also dropped in that period to 10.1—some four spots better than his 2013 finishing average of 14.4.
For comparison, current points leader Matt Kenseth has a season-long average finish of 12.7.
"Earlier this year I was probably as frustrated as I've ever been in a race car," Gordon said. "We just were missing something."
But something, right around the New Hampshire race, started to shift for Gordon's team.
"My team has been bringing great race cars to the racetrack, not just in the Chase but about three, four races I think prior to that, we just really started making some gains on some things, and it's shown up week in and week out," Gordon said. "I'm having a lot of fun right now."
The most fun, of course, will be if Gordon can take a trip to Victory Lane and boost his Chase standing down the stretch. Saturday night's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway is the first in the six-race sprint to the close of the season, and Gordon was upbeat at Kansas about his possibilities there.
"We ran really good at Charlotte earlier this year, and I think our mile-and-a-half program has gotten so much better since then," Gordon said. "The big challenge is qualifying. We've got to qualify strong at Charlotte, and I know we're going to race good there."
In May's Coca-Cola 600, Gordon had a car capable of winning after he drove from 14th to third with 100 laps to go. A pit-road strategy mistake occurred when a caution wave trapped him a lap down, however, and he was later caught in a crash that ended his race as he tried to claw back through the field.
Charlotte won't be Gordon's only opportunity, either. Gordon has a combined 17 career wins at the final five tracks after Charlotte and stands as the defending winner of the season's final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Gordon might not be in the focus of the championship fight quite yet. But he's been pesky enough with consistent finishes that a win could vault him into the conversation. With his recent uptick in performance, that shouldn't be a surprise.
Quotes in this article obtained firsthand from NASCAR press conference transcripts.
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