If Jeff Gordon seems to look a bit exasperated more so than in previous seasons, you can't blame the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.  

As an 85-time race winner and a perennial title contender essentially since 1995, this season has been a nightmare for the Vallejo, CA native and his No. 24 Drive to End Hunger/DuPont Chevrolet Impala team.

While some fans may argue that Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson were also off to a slow start last year, they were a bit closer to the top-10 in points, as they sat 17th in points and nabbed a win at Phoenix.

A strong summer swing that saw Gordon win at Pocono and Atlanta, finish second at Infineon and Indianapolis, and third at Bristol and Richmond helped the four-timer go from nearly forgotten to a third-place seed heading into the Chase.

However, the 2012 campaign has been a struggle for Gordon, with only one top-five (fourth at Texas) and two top-10's (an eighth at Phoenix) to account for in a year that's seen the 40-year-old talent encounter bad luck in about every race thus far.

At Daytona, his motor expired just 81 laps into the race, relegating him to a 40th place finish.  Sure, he had an average day at Las Vegas with a 12th, but Bristol saw the champ tangle with teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. en route to a disappointing 35th-place finish.

Pit road mistakes cost Gordon and his No. 24 team dearly in what was a promising top-five finish at Fontana.  

Couple that with an untimely rain storm that ended the Auto Club 400 about 70 laps short from its scheduled distance and you get the picture about their strange season.

Martinsville was perhaps the biggest letdown for "The Rainbow Warriors," as Gordon led 328 laps and had the Goody's 500 won.  

A bonsai move by Clint Bowyer resulted in major contact between Gordon and teammate Jimmie Johnson, sending the seven-time track winner into a spin and 14th-place result.

Talladega was another chapter of despair for Gordon, who won the Coors Light Pole Award and had a solid DuPont car.  

Despite an overheating motor, he was biding his time to make a run for the win until a "mini" "Big One" caused by Aric Almirola tangling with Dave Blaney mashed in eight other drivers in a turn three crash.

Nearly missing the accident, Gordon was clipped by a spinning Martin Truex, Jr., which sent the DuPont Chevy nosing into the SAFER barrier and into the garage area en route to a 33rd-place finish.

His cars have been fast and his pit crew, save for Fontana, has been steady all year long.  Aside from a somewhat shaky qualifying program, all the makings are there for a solid pre-Chase season for Gordon and the Drive to End Hunger/DuPont crew.

That leaves one question for Gordon, his team, sponsors, and his fans - what is going on here?

"This is one of the most bizarre years this team has ever gone through," Gordon said to NASCAR on FOX pit reporter Dr. Dick Berggren. "It's almost comical at this point."

For a guy who's been so successful in about every racing series in his illustrious career, it's perhaps the most adverse and troublesome season yet for the future NASCAR Hall of Famer.  

Sure, 2000 was bad, but at least he caught a few breaks and managed to sneak in top-10's with a mashed in fender or a lucky pit stop tactic.

Heck, even 2005 was pretty terrible, but that was pretty much a year that was somewhat salvaged by those wins at the season opener at Daytona, an epic comeback and sweep at Martinsville, and domination at Talladega.

Those winless seasons in 2008 and '10 aren't lookint too bad now since the team was able to hover in or near the top-10 in points all season long.

Needless to say, it is somewhat puzzling that such a powerful team and tremendously talented racer in Gordon hasn't lost his touch behind the wheel.  

On any given race day, magic can happen on the track and the former young gun has shown flashes of brilliance and winning ways from the '90s about 20 years later.

Consider the fact that the next race on the Sprint Cup tour is Darlington Raceway, which is a track that has been favorable to Gordon throughout his career.  He's won six Southern 500 races and took the spring race in 1996.

Last year's race may have not been too kind to Gordon, who placed 12th in the 500-miler, but he has a strong track record at the South Carolina speedway.  He's logged 18 top-fives and 21 top-10's in his previous 31 starts at this facility, which aren't too shabby for a guy who essentially wrecked out in his first five races there.

If Gordon truly wants to make a run at this year's Chase, his comeback must begin this Saturday night with the Bojangles Southern 500.  

A total weekend must be in place for the No. 24 team, starting from practice off the truck to qualifying towards the front for a good pit selection.

Those elements plus a solid effort in the race will almost certainly produce the complete race for Gordon, who could very well turn heads and finally get that elusive first win of 2012.

At some point in a champion's career comes a test in which the individual and the core supporting cast around that force gets challenged tremendously.  

How they come out of this experience and grow from it is perhaps more meaningful than thorough domination that might make even the humblest of individuals wane in appreciation with their success.

For Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports team, if they can turn their season around and consistently churn in top-five and top-10 efforts, this first quarter of 2012 will be the one that truly kicked the team into fourth gear and make a statement for a true "Drive to Five" campaign.