TALLADEGA, Ala. - Much has been made about Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the possibility of him returning to victory lane in today's Aarons 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.
After all he has five wins and 11 top 10s and it's considered one of his best tracks. And after a strong start to the season that included 7 top-10s (in nine races) and a strong-hold on second-place in the championship standings, it looks as if Earnhardt is due.
But if this is a discussion about which perennial Talladega contender is due for a win, we're talking about pole-sitter Jeff Gordon. Gordon is off to possibly the worst start of his career, with no wins and only two top-10s. But that doesn't tell the whole story.
Gordon has had fast cars this year, and should have won at Martinsville and had strong runs negated at Bristol and Kansas at no fault of his own.
"When your cars are running good, it's nice to be able to check that off the list," Gordon said. "Because that's the hardest thing there is to do in this sport - to have fast race cars. This is where I credit (crew chief) Alan Gustafson, he is a great leader and a positive guy. He's keeping this team together, upbeat and positive despite all that we've been through.
"We've just got to put full races together."
So Gordon is equally due.
And he's good at Talladega - perhaps even the best of all time. That's because, in 38 starts, Gordon's posted 6 wins, 14 top-5s and 18 top-10s. And he's starting from the pole, a starting spot that he's won from before in 2007.
And if Jeff Gordon does win today, don't expect him to stop at one. Gordon holds the modern era record with back-to-back Sprint Cup wins with 13 over his 20-year career. His lack back-to-back wins occurred at Talladega, winning here and at Charlotte in Oct. 2007.
But even if he doesn't win, there's very little doubt in my mind that Jeff Gordon will win multiple races and compete for the championship this year.
Don't forget that Gordon entered this race last year in a very similar predicament. Sure he won the second race of the season, in Phoenix, but went on a month-plus long slump that saw him fall to 17th in the standings - the same place Gordon currently sits at entering today's race.
Gordon finished last year's Aarons 499 in third and went on a summer tear, winning additional races at Pocono and Atlanta before sizzling-out in the Chase. Most experts had picked Gordon to win his fifth championship and were surprised at how they fared once the playoffs began in Chicagoland.
Perhaps Gordon and Gustafson learned something from Tony Stewart, who entered last year's Chase in 10th but had prepared his entire stable for the 10-race playoff. Perhaps Gordon and Gustafson, both long-plagued by the Chase have finally figured out that the season is a 10-race sprint and not a 36-race marathon as was the previously stated.
"You guys once said that the Chase cost me a championship or two," Gordon said. "Now you can say the Chase is what is keeping us in this championship. We're going to try and take advantage of the flip side of it and focus on wins and getting ourselves in.
"Getting in the top-10 is a tall task but it's not insurmountable. Getting two to three wins, I think we are capable of doing that."
The Chase has changed the way that teams race.
The regular season means about as much as Gordon's Talladega pole. Success is now achieved by performing just strong enough to get into the Chase, while saving your best equipment and data for the playoffs
It's that's the sort of knowledge that netted Tony Stewart his third title and it just may be the key to land Gordon his fifth.