There is no question Denny Hamlin has been on a tear this season. Three wins, four top-5s, four top-10s and 344 laps led have proved many were right in picking the Joe Gibbs Racing driver as the preseason favorite. Yet, despite his success in finding victory lane and overcoming ACL surgery, Hamlin is not the biggest threat to dethrone four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson.
Even though Hamlin has been one of the strongest guys in the garage, four-time champion Jeff Gordon has emerged as the driver to beat in 2010. The only problem is each week Gordon gets beat. Now facing a 40-race winless streak, Gordon and his No. 24 team has shown up nearly each week with the best car and the best chance to win, only to have wins slip away in the closing laps. This weekend in Darlington was no exception.
After leading a race-high 110 of the 367 laps, Gordon missed pit road on the final round of green flag pit stops. The uncharacteristic mistake nearly cost Gordon a chance at a lead lap finish, but luckily for the No. 24 team a caution flew as he made his way back to pit road. Able to beat Hamlin, the race leader, to the start/finish line, Gordon stayed on the lead lap, but the damage had been done. With one of the strongest cars in the field, the No. 24 Chevrolet was forced to restart the race in the 13th spot with just 20 laps to go.
With four fresh tires Gordon made one heck of a charge to fourth, picking off spot after spot, but time was just not on his side. As Hamlin drove to his third win of the season, Gordon and the No. 24 team was forced to swallow another disappointing finish.
“This team is doing the job that we need to do to get in to victory lane,” Gordon said. “Right now, we are knocking on that door. We are leading laps, we are running up front. We are having a lot of fun, that is for sure. It has been a while since this No. 24 car has run like this. I can't wait to get to Dover.”
This is not the first time Gordon and his Steve Letarte-led team has been knocking on the door in terms of getting to victory lane. In the first 11 races, Gordon has five top-5s, five top-10s and has led a total of 709 laps. He has five top-4 finishes and could have easily won six races already this season (Las Vegas, Martinsville, Phoenix, Talladega, Richmond and now Darlington).
Aside from the statistics, Gordon has shown a hunger and determination that has been lacking over the past few seasons. Credit it to wanting to beat teammate Jimmie Johnson, much better equipment or simply a renewed desire to be champion, either way, Gordon is serious about contending for this year’s title.
With such a focus on the bigger picture, Gordon is not letting the winlessness affect his outlook on the season – at least just yet.
“It gets a little frustrating when you don’t pull it off, but the thing is there are times when I’m going to make mistakes like I did at Phoenix and spin the tires, there are times when a guy on the pit crew is going to make a mistake to get us behind, or Steve might not make the right call, and you just have to understand that we’re all in it together,” Gordon said before this weekend’s race. “It’s a team sport, and as long as we’re running good and we’re early in the season that we can just keep working on those little details because all that really matters—don’t get me wrong, we get close to the Chase and we haven’t won a race, then it’s going to affect us, but it’s too early right now in the season to let that kind of stuff be affecting us.”
While Hamlin may be racking up the wins and the trophies 11 races into the season, Gordon is building the momentum and confidence to know his team has what it takes to contend for wins week in and week out.
Over the years, Gordon has been one of the best at hitting a hot streak. Once he finds victory lane, it becomes harder and harder to keep him out. In a span of ten races in 2007, Gordon racked up five poles, four wins and eight top-4 finishes. Obviously, this is not 2007, but that was the last year Gordon was a serious contender for the title and those stats show that once he gets on a roll it is hard to stop him.
With another promising track coming up, Gordon will once again enter this weekend’s event in Dover as one of the favorites. Scoring four wins at the Monster Mile, it would come as no surprise to see the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet out front for the majority of the day this Sunday. The real question is, can he and his team pull it together and show they can get the job done when it matters most?
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