For all the talk about Jimmie Johnson experiencing some slumps this season, teammate Jeff Gordon has been experiencing a bit of a rut in terms of performances in recent races.
Sure, he's had a solid season so far, scoring five top-fives and six top-10's in 2010. On previous articles, I've mentioned those great runs and finishes at Las Vegas, Martinsville, Phoenix, Richmond, and Darlington.
Lately, the driver of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet has paled in comparison to the one who was touted by critics as "the next driver who'll win a race in the Sprint Cup Series." In fact, he's been verging on the land of "irrelevance."
Dare I say Gordon's irrelevant?
Witness: At Dover, a track that's traditionally treated Gordon well in the past, he hardly resembled the driver who dominated "The Monster Mile," struggling with a car that was, at best, an eighth place car.
After making contact with Greg Biffle toward the final stretch of the Autism Speaks 400, the Vallejo, Calif. native struggled to an 11th place result and a team scratching their heads as to how a track that's treated them well proved to be a venue of confusion.
Then, there was the non-points All Star event at Charlotte, in which a lap one brush with the fourth corner wall irreparably hampered the handling of his Impala. The writing literally was on the wall, basically making it an experience akin to a long family road trip where a child will ask their parent, "Are we there yet?"
NASCAR's longest race proved to be just that for the "Rainbow Warriors" the following week, in which the 600-miler became a test of patience and perseverance. Fortunately, the finish translated to a sixth-place showing, but that hardly spoke volumes to the kind of night that the No. 24 team had in the grueling event.
Last Sunday's Pocono slumber was just excruciating for Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte, as the duo struggled to dial in their Chevrolet for the 500-miler. Despite a solid qualifying effort of 10th, their efforts in the race was reminiscent of their 2008 season, showing up at each track as a virtual non-factor.
Translation: a bad day at the office that was mercifully put to an end with a last-lap crash in the Long Pond straightway, placing Gordon down in the running order in 32nd.
Now the circuit heads to Michigan International Speedway, a venue that has traditionally been kind to the DuPont team, logging in a pair of victories, 17 top-fives, 22 top-10's, and four pole positions in his previous 34 starts. The Irish Hills have been something of an elixir to Gordon whenever his season starts to sputter with a brief ailment, and a great finish at the two-mile sweeping speedway may just be what the doctor's ordered for the perennial team.
Also, the guards are called back into service for the No. 24 unit, with the National Guard colors adorning their Impala for the fourth time this year. this time spotlighting their Job Skills department.
There are some positives to spotlight in spite of Gordon's no show at the front in recent races. For one thing, he's run in the top-15 an astonishing 4,038 laps and has led the most miles this season (866.29). Scoring loop data also shows that he's run typically in ninth during the race and has the third-best driver rating with a score of 105.2.
But then there are the obvious issues that are apparent on race day. Gordon will give feedback to Letarte regarding the handling of his machine, as most racers do, exaggerating the way their car negotiates the corners and reacts in traffic along the straights.
Now of course, crew chiefs are wise and know better in diagnosing the car's issues. However, on some occasions, although with good intentions, Letarte hasn't been able to pinpoint the problems of the No. 24 car, leading it from a car on the verge of being adjustable to one that's on the brink of crashing hard into the SAFER barrier.
Virtually all afternoon at Pocono, their Chevrolet just refused to respond to their changes, getting to the point where the pair just decided it was a struggle to the finish. Playing the fuel mileage game, their efforts ultimately proved futile, stumbling down to the sub-20s and eventually mired in 32nd, crashing hard into Kasey Kahne in the spectacular last-lap crash.
While qualifying is paramount and a great way to get the race weekend all geared up, a solid handling machine on Sunday is what matters most. That's what the No. 24 team did for a majority of the first segment of the year, and that's exactly what this group must do if they want to challenge for wins just before the Chase starts in September.
Otherwise, Gordon may have to answer questions about his "Drive for Five" much like NFL stalwart and legendary quarterback Brett Favre is asked about winning a second Super Bowl.