Gordon needs solid showing at Kansas
Jeff Gordon entered the 2011 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup as one of the favorites.
However, the performance of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in the first three races is not indicative of the promise the team showed leading up to the Chase.
Gordon experienced a tire issue at Chicagoland and was bitten by fuel mileage in the Chase opener and the following week at New Hampshire. Last weekend at Dover, Gordon had his worst qualifying effort of the season (34th) but rallied to finish 12th.
But as competitive as the Chase field is right now, 12th-place finishes likely won’t be good enough.
Still, Gordon doesn’t feel that this is a "make or break" weekend for his team in terms of desperately needing to win the race — but he does believe they need to leave Kansas Speedway "with a strong performance."
"Two of the first three races have not gone quite the way we had hoped," Gordon said. "I’d say besides New Hampshire we kind of survived the other two. We knew that Dover was going to be a tough race for us. We didn’t anticipate Chicago, so that one kind of threw us off a little bit.
"We know that this starts our real run at the championship, and we obviously can’t afford to just survive any more races. We’ve got to get out there and put the numbers up, and this is a great weekend to do that."
In 11 starts at Kansas Speedway, Gordon has an average finish of 8.1. He won the first two races, and with the exception of a fuel-pump failure that led to a DNF, Gordon’s worst finish is 12th. He finished fourth here in June after qualifying 22nd but believes the No. 24 team is stronger upon return trips to tracks.
Gordon’s squad was one of the three teams at Hendrick Motorsports that underwent a crew change last November. Team owner Rick Hendrick placed Gordon with crew chief Alan Gustafson, a young, ambitious leader who guided Mark Martin, then 50, to five wins and a second-place finish in the points standings two years ago.
Gustafson has had a similar effect on revitalizing Gordon’s career. The driver, who has 85 career victories and is third on the all-time win list, credits Gustafson for doing “a great job” of analyzing data.
Although the four-time champion has won at every track on the circuit except Homestead-Miami and Kentucky, which debuted on the Cup tour this year, Gustafson still had to develop his own baseline for the driver.
"The way that he communicates with his engineers and how they read the data and how they go through it and break it all down" is what makes the difference, Gordon said.
"From my standpoint, the driver has certain feedback, and I can understand shocks, bump stomps and sway bars to a certain level, but you’ve got guys that are focused on all kinds of tire data, track data, bump stops, how the wedge is being affected by everything we do, and that’s the way this sport is headed.
"Where this sport is headed these days, you’ve got to have specialists and engineers that know the areas and really understand it. Alan is sharp enough there that he can manage that. He understands kind of every aspect of it, but he still relies on those guys that are specialized in those areas to give him the information he needs."
The pair miraculously won at Phoenix in their second start together, then picked up victories at Pocono and Atlanta, the most hardware Gordon has accumulated in four years.
"I just love the way they break down all the information and go back through and how we debrief and prepare from a previous race,” Gordon said.
“I feel like this team just knows how to get better over time. They’re listening to what I need and providing me those tools to go out there and be strong. We might still miss it from time to time, but I’ve got a lot of faith in their systems and the way they go about it.
"We’ve been missing at qualifying — that’s the only things we’ve really been not doing a great job at this year, and that’s something that we knew we needed to do better at in the Chase. We’ve not done it so far. Hopefully we’ve learned something in these three races that can help us not continue down that path in qualifying.”
Gordon qualified 10th on Friday, his best effort so far in the Chase. When the Chase began, Gordon was third in the standings. He slipped to 11th after finishing 24th at Chicagoland, bounced back to fifth after Loudon and currently is ninth in points, 19 behind leaders Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards.
Given Gordon’s comfort level at Kansas City, this is a track where he could turn around his title hopes. But Gordon has been at this game long enough to know his rivals must have problems and make mistakes for him to truly capitalize this weekend.
"We are only three races in,” Gordon said of the Chase. “I’m actually surprised that some cars are as far back as they are. You know even myself, I’m 19 points back, I don’t think we’re that close. We’re still in it, but it’s not as close as I had hoped we would be.
"All the guys earned their way into the Chase for a reason and you expect that to continue as the final 10 races are run, to stay pretty close. I guess toward the top it is pretty close; it’s just how good the competition is right now."
THE GAMES PEOPLE PLAY
Carl Edwards took issue with the tactics Brad Keselowski used to win the Nationwide Series race on Saturday.
Certainly, Keselowski had the dominant car in the Kansas Lottery 300. He led four times for 173 laps before he won his 16th career NNS race. Edwards finished second.
However, Edwards, the polesitter, selected pit stall No. 8 — rather than the traditional first pit stall because of the position of the timing lines and in order to practice getting in and out of his stall for the Sprint Cup race Sunday. Last week at Dover, Edwards earned a speeding penalty that likely cost him the race, and he didn’t want to repeat his mistake.
On the last stop on Lap 176, Keselowski cut off Edwards, prompting the driver of the No. 60 to ask over the radio, "Why the hell did he run across my front end on pit road?"
“For some reason Brad was running me down towards pit wall, and I don’t know why he was doing that,” Edwards said. “I am not sure if he realized how fast his car was. He was kind of doing some funny stuff throughout the race like that.
“In my mind, I thought he must have the pit stall before us. That was a little confusing because I didn’t know what he was doing. He might have been confused and thought his pit stall was earlier or something.”
Edwards also claimed that Keselowski was lying back on the restart, forcing him to jump the start and draw the black flag.
“The reason I cleared him on the one restart is because he was doing his best to get me black-flagged,” Edwards added. “He lifted after he went to make sure I crossed the line first, and then he let me clear him. I think he realized maybe they weren’t going to give me the black flag, so he made sure to go back by.
“I thought that was pretty interesting. His car was very good. That is why I said after the race, 'If you guys could help me, just remind him when he starts complaining about our cars again like he does all the time, remind him of today because that was a spectacular car.'”
Edwards waited for Keselowski in the media center after his post-race interview and questioned the driver of the No. 22 about his motives. But Edwards, who’s had an ongoing feud with Keselowski for the past three years, didn’t seem genuinely satisfied with the answers before he left.
Keselowski acknowledged that Edwards was “good” and had “a great car.” But Keselowski’s Dodge was better. He just had to be patient on the final restart and wait for the right moment to regain the lead. That opportunity came on Lap 186.
“It was tough to get by him, and (I) just slowly broke him down until I got the mistake I needed and was able to get by him,” Keselowski said.
4: Victories for Keselowski in the Nationwide Series this season
7: Points that differentiate the Nos. 18 and 60 in the NNS owner points
19: Positions gained by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. after serving a speeding penalty and finishing fifth
20: Points that separate NNS points leader Ricky Stenhouse Jr. from Elliott Sadler
Tempers flared again between Aric Almirola and Brian Scott in the Nationwide Series on Saturday. Almirola — the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet, who finished 12th — fired a shot that Scott was “fortunate that his dad has a lot of money” and that he “raced over his head.” To which Scott replied, “He just races like, I don’t know any other better word for it than a jack you-know-what. He runs you tight — tighter than anybody. He tried to pass us on pit road and tried to block me from getting into my pits. It’s an every-week thing, and I’m sick of it. I’m not going to put up with it anymore, and that’s what I told him.”