NOTEBOOK: Can excellent speed overcome Jeff Gordon's run of bad luck?
By: By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service, Superior Telegram
SONOMA, Calif. — Perhaps Jeff Gordon's streak of extraordinarily bad luck would be more palatable if the four-time champion hadn't shown potential race-winning speed on more than one occasion this season.
Gordon is 20th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings, with an uncharacteristically meager four top 10s in 15 races this year. It's not that Gordon has run poorly. It's simply that circumstances have conspired to turn possible strong finishes into poor ones.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s victory last Sunday at Michigan leaves Gordon as the only one of four Hendrick Motorsports drivers without a win this season.
"It's easier when it's just all down," Gordon said. "When there's no ups and downs, you don't have any expectations. I feel like it's really been a test for us. It has not been easy. When you have high expectations on yourself, and your teammates are winning and doing well, and when you're running so good (without the results to show for it), it makes it even more frustrating."
Gordon again showed excellent speed Saturday at Sonoma. In the first morning practice session, he busted off a lap at 94.312 mph, more than a full mile-per-hour faster than polesitter Marcos Ambrose was able to achieve.
There's no greater rallying cry for a team than a strong performance, but as Gordon pointed out, he's had to play a much more active role in bolstering the morale of his No. 24 crew this year.
"This year, I've had to do it more on a personal level, one on one and in the team meetings, really kind of stepping out there and putting some words out there that I feel like could be key to keeping us together and getting us through those tough times," Gordon said.
Sometimes the best saves are the ones that go all but unnoticed.
That was the case two weeks ago at Pocono, where crew chief Brian Pattie's timely reaction saved a top-10 finish for driver Clint Bowyer.
The engine in Bowyer's No. 15 Toyota suffered the same issue that knocked fellow Camry driver Kyle Busch out of the race —- metal flaking that disrupted the oil flow. Quick thinking on Pattie's part, however, prevented Bowyer's engine from expiring.
During a late caution, Pattie added two-and-a-half quarts of oil, and Bowyer survived to finish sixth in the Pocono 400 presented by #NASCAR.
"Sometimes you've got to manufacture finishes, and we brainstormed there when we heard our oil pressure was dropping down," Pattie told the NASCAR Wire Service. "We saw the 18 (Busch) having his trouble.
"I don't know if I made a save -— I think the caution made a save, whatever that caution was at the end where I pitted with 30-some laps to go. It enabled us to put some oil in the motor and survive and get a top 10."
That finish could prove crucial to Bowyer's chances to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. For one thing, it kept him in the top 10 in the standings -— critical for a driver who hasn't won a race this year. And with a third consecutive top 10 at Michigan last Sunday, ninth-place Bowyer holds a 25-point edge over Carl Edwards in 11th.
Had Bowyer's engine suffered the same fate as Busch's, that advantage would have evaporated.
Gordon paced both practice sessions on Saturday, but he wasn't the only driver who stood out. AJ Allmendinger made significant gains from his 17th-place qualifying effort, posting the third-fastest speed in the first practice and fifth fastest in the second. . . . Strategy at road courses is often counterintuitive. At ovals, it's customary for the pole-winning crew chief to select the No. 1 pit stall, closest to the exit from pit road. At 1.99-mile Sonoma, where a driver can pit without losing a lap, Todd Parrott, Ambrose's crew chief, picked stall No. 11, right before the start/finish line. There's a gap in front of that box, leaving ample room for a team to push-start a car that's out of fuel without running through another team's stall. A car parked in stall No. 1 can't afford to run out of fuel, because the proximity of that stall to the racing surface doesn't allow room for pushing.