Heading Into 2011: Chasing The Probable Top 12 in Sprint Cup Racing (Pt. 6 of 12)
If there was a clear way to describe the topsy-turvy season for Jeff Gordon and the No. 24 DuPont Chevy team, perhaps Katy Perry could put it best:
You're hot and you're cold, you're yes then you're no, you're in then you're out, you're up then you're down...
Sure, it's one of the most overplayed pop songs in the the past few years, but a NASCAR racing equivalent to that is the inconsistency hindering the once dominant force on the stock car circuit.
The famous red, orange, and yellow flamed car is a fixture at the front of the pack for most of the race, but near the finish, it's often out of the picture in terms of capturing a win.
From Daytona Speedweeks up until the July race at Chicagoland Speedway, it was shaping up to be another respectable season, with 10 top-fives and 11 top-10's through 19 races.
There were the near trips to Victory Lane, particularly at Las Vegas, Martinsville, Phoenix, Texas, Richmond, Darlington, Daytona, and Chicagoland.
Instead of capitalizing in those races with wins, they found ways to lose in ways that would make a Boston Red Sox fan think of the 1986 World Series or the 1978 one-off game against the New York Yankees (Bucky Dent, anyone?).
Those would be the best of times for Gordon and then crew chief Steve Letarte, who would endure a second-half slump which nearly dropped them out of the top-10 in points by year's end.
Not only did they suffer with their performances during the races, but their efforts in qualifying were about as mediocre as it could possibly get despite a pole at Charlotte in October.
In a performance based sport, if the main star's not living up to expectations, it's the coach that often takes the fall. After all, that's usually how it goes, although it's not the most correct decision in some cases.
For Gordon and his "Rainbow Warriors," it was a much drastic change after the checkered flag flew at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
Chronicled in the Mark Martin preview, Hendrick Motorsports made tremendous changes to their organization, essentially moving Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. from their previous team campuses to "dorm" with Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson respectively.
For Gordon, it's a drastic change of scenery, occupying the 5/24 shop which essentially translates to an entirely new team surrounding him in 2011.
From the crew chief to pit crew, about the only thing that's remained the same for the four-time Sprint Cup champion is his firesuit and DuPont Chevy, although the flames will be on the track just 13 times.
First, let's start with the new "head coach." Gordon will be working with Alan Gustafson, who's often been dubbed as the second best crew chief with Hendrick.
Gustafson could be somewhat compared to Chad Knaus in that he's a disciplinarian and a bit of a perfectionist.
Paying particular attention to detail, as well as harnessing his driver during heated times, the 35-year-old head wrench might just be what Gordon needs to return to Victory Lane on a regular basis.
Secondly, the 39-year-old racer will also be working alongside a new pit crew. Inheriting the former No. 5 team's ensemble, it'll be interesting to see if they can reel of stops as fast as their predecessors this past season.
They'll have lofty expectations to live up to, considering how efficient and quick the former No. 24 pit crew was until they were "traded" to teammate Jimmie Johnson's team during the Texas race in November.
Last but not least, Gordon will also be driving the liveries of a new sponsor, and it's not your typical Fortune 500 company.
Instead, the AARP Foundation, through its new charity initiative called "The Drive To End Hunger," will adorn the burgundy, black, and silver No. 24 Chevy Impala for 22 races.
Undoubtedly, there's so much talent in Sprint Cup racing that it'd take more than a title winning effort for Gordon to challenge the "established elites" of Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Carl Edwards.
However, there's no doubt that the will to win is still there for the Vallejo, Calif. native, who certainly proved that during his low points of 2010, particularly with teammate Johnson and Richard Childress Racing's Jeff Burton.
He's not forgotten how to drive a race car and he's definitely got what it takes to reel off multiple wins in a season.
Are those 10 or more wins in a season out of the question?
Most likely yes.
A fifth title is still in the offing, but it's up to Gordon and Gustafson to gel quickly as a cohesive unit if they want to not only make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship, but to disprove any thought that the driver once called "The Wonderboy" has driven off to irrelevancy.
This team has the makings to be in the Chase, projected on The Podium Finish to place seventh, which may not exactly exude a great season for Jeff Gordon.
All things considered, there would be a few wins and a bountiful of top-10's to be collected in 2011 by a team that's destined to end hunger not only with their winless streak, but with the most important race of all - life.