Jared C. Tilton - Getty Images for NASCAR
The last time Jeff Gordon headed to Charlotte Motor Speedway, his deficit in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points manifested itself in a strikingly tangible form.
Gordon, the four-time series champion, was mired in the throes of several subpar finishes and horrible racing luck that relegated him to 24th place in the points heading to the final weekend in May. Once the Sprint Cup haulers arrived in Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600, his status in the bottom half of the standings was underscored by the parking place reserved for Gordon's transporter -- on the opposite side of the garage from the series' front-runners.
How times have changed.
Gordon will be solidly on the right side of the garage in the series' return to Charlotte for Saturday night's Bank of America 500 (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC), the fifth round of the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup postseason. The track has been the site of Gordon's first Cup win and four more that have followed, but only one of those Charlotte triumphs (October 2007) has come in the last 13 years.
For now, Gordon is just happy to have more to show for his efforts this season. Since his low-water mark in May, Gordon has since rallied to get into the Chase, snatching the final wild-card playoff berth with a clutch performance at Richmond last month.
Gordon stubbed his toe out of the gate with a 35th-place run at Chicagoland in the Chase opener, but has finished third, second and second in the three races that have followed. His most recent runner-up finish, secured after avoiding a colossal last-lap pileup at Talladega, helped him jump four spots in the standings to sixth, 42 points behind series leader Brad Keselowski.
"That's what I love about the way our season has been," Gordon said. "While it's thrown some curveballs at us and it hasn't been the kind of season that we hoped for, we've also been dealt with a lot of adversity and had to overcome some tough finishes -- some in our control, some out of our control. I think it's made us a much stronger team. It either breaks you down and tears you apart, or it makes you stronger."
Despite the recent show of strength, Gordon still has substantial ground to make up in hunting down the standings' powerful top three. Keselowski, winner of two of the first three Chase races, holds a 14-point lead over five-time series champ Jimmie Johnson, while New Hampshire winner Denny Hamlin sits third, 23 points off the top.
Neither Keselowski nor Hamlin have a Charlotte victory in their Sprint Cup portfolio, but Johnson is tied atop the all-time list (with NASCAR Hall of Famers Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip) with six career wins at the 1.5-mile speedway.