On a sweltering Sunday afternoon at Talladega, AL, four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Jeff Gordon stood outside his No. 24 team hauler, looking at the battered hulk of his Chevy Impala. It was a dreary May 6th for the famed driver, as he look gobsmacked about his 2012 season.
"This is one of the most bizarre years this team has ever gone through," Gordon said to FOX Sports reporter Dr. Dick Berggren. "It's almost comical at this point."
Comical was perhaps the best way to describe the 41-year-old racer's season. He started the year off with a blown motor at Daytona in February, a cut tire and crash at Bristol in March, a late restart crash as the leader at Martinsville in April, getting collected in "The Big One" at Talladega and cut tires at Darlington in May, as well as loose lugnuts at Dover and a fuel mileage snafu at Sonoma in June.
It seemed like no matter how fast Gordon's No. 24 AARP Drive to End Hunger/DuPont "20 Years" Chevrolet ran during the race weekend, trouble would find them in a hurry. Like a monsoon in the desert, it was like bad luck hung over the team like a dark cloud.
The question during those struggles wasn't so much if Gordon could still drive in NASCAR. Rather, it was whether or not this perennial, winning team could snap out of its funk.
Surely enough, after a rough start in the spring, it appears as if the summer's been a good, hot one for Gordon and company, as they've gained 11 positions in the points standings since their Mother's Day weekend nightmare at Darlington.
Once mired in 24th position and virtually looking like an afterthought for one of the two wild card Chase seeds, Gordon holds the 13th position and second wild card seed as the Cup circuit heads into this Sunday's Finger Lakes 335 at Watkins Glen International.
Gordon's victory last Sunday at Pocono Raceway put him in position to make The Chase for the eighth time in the playoff format's nine-year run. Although 13th isn't exactly a glowing position in the points race, the advent of the two wild card positions helps racers like Gordon to make the title race starting next month.
Strong runs and wins are paramount and pivotal right now if he wants a chance to finally hoist his fifth driver's championship in his 20 years of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing.
A win at Watkins Glen this Sunday would further cement Gordon's legacy and legend in stock car racing, as he's the all-time winningest driver on road courses. He swept the races at Sonoma and Watkins Glen in 1998 and 1999, with additional wins at the New York circuit in '97 and 2001.
Additionally, Gordon won at Sonoma in 2000, '04, and '06, securing his status as "King of the Road Courses."
With that reputation on these tricky tracks, Gordon realizes that a victory on Sunday would not only snap an 11-year winless streak at Watkins Glen, it would truly help his cause to make the Chase.
"I mean, that would be huge," Gordon said. "To follow what just happened in Pocono, to know what's happening in the wild card, the battle for the Chase, I think that we know while we've made some huge gains over the last several weeks, that we're certainly in no position to take a breath or be comfortable with one win being, what, 13th in points."
Last Sunday's rain shortened Pennsyvlania 400 was an anti-Gordon race from this season, in that it was a race that actually favored his odds rather than go against him as it did earlier in the season.
The lap 91 restart had all the makings for a disastrous result for Gordon, restarting on the outside row in sixth spot. Bad luck was almost certain to happen, right? Well, Gordon, with the aid of good timing and coordination and the inclemenet weather, bucked the odds.
Instead, he got an amazing restart, something that's been middling for the veteran racer, pulling just ahead of teammate Kasey Kahne on the inside line. From then on, his No. 24 Chevy hugged the white line while the top-four tangled in turn one, handing over the lead and ultimately the race to Gordon.
Now that the 86-time race winner is in contention and prime for a playoff spot, the pressure is on for this team to not only secure a seed. They must outperform wild card rivals Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, and Ryan Newman, who've also won one race this year. A win by any of those challengers would put Gordon back into the position he was prior to last Sunday's race at Pocono: on the outside looking in.
While it's no easy task for most drivers, Gordon understands the challenge that lies ahead for the next five races ahead.
"Not only do we understand -- and that's why there is added pressure -- how important it is to continue to keep up a high level of performance," Gordon said. "I don't know if we need the second win as badly as we needed the first one, but it's not far off."
August's Cup races are at tracks that have been favorable to the Vallejo, CA native throughout his career, with Watkins Glen, Michigan, and Bristol on the horizon. Along with his four wins at the 2.45-mile road course, there's those two triumphs at Michigan (1998 and '01), and five gems at Bristol.
As opportune as victories and solid finishes are for the No. 24 team, as the case has been until this summer, bad luck could creep back in with Gordon, crew chief Alan Gustafson, and the team.
Still, the chance to still make the cut for the title hunt has (so far) been quite the display of resilience and determination by a team that's embodied the concept to "Refuse to Lose." Watkins Glen will most certainly play a role in deciding the fate of "The Gordon Express," which has finished six times in the top-six in the past seven races.
Results like that show that indeed, winning never gets old for the man behind the wheel of the No. 24 AARP Drive to End Hunger/DuPont Chevy, all prepared and ready to put an end to a title drought that's been running since that series title in 2001.