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First Place

Matt Crossman, Sporting News

A Void At The Top

Four-time champion Jeff Gordon failed to make the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup for one simple reason: He can’t count on his cars

The look on Jeff Gordon’s face tells you everything. He’s The Jeff Gordon, a four-time Cup champion, the greatest NASCAR driver of his generation, maybe ever. With one of the biggest races of his career one day away, you expect him to exude confidence – daggers out of the eyes and all that. But as Gordon looks over a few dozen reporters, instead of steeliness, you get ambivalence. Shouldn’t he be more … something? After all, to qualify for NASCAR’s playoffs, Gordon needs to pick up 30 points and beat out Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman.  But Gordon doesn’t know whether his car will be fast or slow or somewhere in between. Maybe it’ll handle well. Maybe not.

That he’s worried he will struggle in the race says everything you need to know about his confidence, one of a driver’s most important assets. For Gordon, it’s going to be a long race weekend. “I have no idea what’s going to happen when that green flag drops,” he says.

That doesn’t sound much like a four-time champion. He hasn’t looked like one either, struggling through his worst season since his rookie year. His absence from the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup is easily the biggest surprise of the season.

How badly has he struggled? This much: make the Chase, miss the Chase, it makes no difference because he has no chance to compete, anyway. Gordon will stumble more in the next 10 races than he did in the first 26 because half of the tracks are intermediate – the kind he has fared worst on.

“When we go to Kansas, when we go to Homestead, if they keep up with the way things have been going this year, he will not be part of the story, he will not be part of the race,” says Benny Parsons, an NBC analyst and the 1973 Cup champion. “And that, for Jeff Gordon and that team, is shocking.”

So how did he get into this mess, after winning three of the first nine races? Gordon’s problem is as simple and complex as intermediate cars that aren’t fast enough. Nextel Cup teams have four types of cars – short track, intermediate, road course and restrictor plate. The cars are as different as a fastball is from a knuckleball. Gordon’s intermediate cars are loose – so loose he can’t drive them hard into the corners.

Gordon’s team struggled to adjust to rule changes this season that made the cars more difficult to set up. Hit the setup right, and the car will fly. Miss, and it will stink with no chance of getting better. “It’s like jumping out of an airplane trying to land on a pinhead,” says Ray Evernham, owner of Evernham Motorsports and a former crew chief for Gordon.

Besides the cars being in disarray, his team has shown rare signs of trouble. Crew chief Robbie Loomis isn’t expected back next season, though Gordon insists the pending departure has nothing to do with Loomis’ performance.

There also has been talk that Gordon’s team has suffered because the person who coordinated information between Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 24 and Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 now plays the same role for Hendrick’s Nos. 5 (Kyle Busch) and 25 (Brian Vickers) – a change that helped improve those teams and hurt communications between the 24 and 48. And you thought the loose explanation was boring.

Let’s get back to Gordon. Saturday’s race is 45 minutes away, and as Gordon steps out of his hauler to go to driver introductions, the look on his face tells you he just ate a bad oyster. His teeth clench so tightly the Jaws of Life couldn’t separate them.  It’s going to be a long night.

Gordon’s car sits in its pit stall on Lap 115. His chances – and half the field – pass him by. Crew members tighten lug nuts they should have gotten during the previous pit stop. The entire stop takes seconds but seems like forever. Back in 28th is no place for a guy fighting for his season, and a little more than halfway through the race, Gordon pays for it.  Johnny Sauter (Who? Exactly!) squeezes Gordon into the wall. The air goes out of his team, his season, and his right front tire. “We’re done,” he says over the radio. Safe bet: The look on his face is not ambivalent.

He drives in circles for a while longer, fates of other drivers decided, his own already sealed, and then it’s official. He finishes 30th, a stunningly bad showing considering every commentator expected Gordon to race his way into the Chase. Instead, he’s 12th in points, and he misses the Chase by 83 points.

Now sweat dampens Gordon’s face, and disappointment pours off of it. Harsh TV lights make his skin look colorless. Which is not a bad description of his performance tonight. His blue eyes stare into the distance, like those of a child who can’t find Mom at the mall. He’ll find her. Eventually.

“The bottom line is, we were way off, and we’ve got a lot of work to do,” he says.

It’s going to be a long offseason.