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Kentucky Jeff's final frontier

Gordon desperately needs win at track he has never finished first on

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SPARTA, Ky. -- Jeff Gordon hopes that crossing the last track off his to-win list can help him gain ground in the Chase standings.

Either way, the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion has his work cut out for him.

Kentucky Speedway is the lone Cup venue left for Gordon to conquer, though this afternoon will mark just his third start at the track. It's still a challenge with a rough, bumpy surface, not to mention a history of triple-digit track temperatures that have worn down drivers and cars. The race, scheduled for Saturday night, was put off until today due to rain.

Gordon's biggest obstacle is clearing three drivers and cracking the top 10 for a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. That's asking a lot in a hard-luck season including four DNFs, leaving no room for error with 10 races remaining in NASCAR's regular season.

Solving the last track that NASCAR has to offer -- for now -- would be a good start.

'We know that this is an important race for us and every one from here on out is going to be crucial for us to get ourselves into the Chase as well as be a threat for the championship'

-- Jeff Gordon

"That would be huge," Gordon said. "Number one, because this is a very challenging race track, not an easy race track to win on. Number two, every time we knock one off, we get close to accomplishing that goal. ... That would be something that I would be very proud of."

The upside for Gordon is that he's coming off a runner-up finish Sunday in the road race in Sonoma, Calif. He also has been impressive on Kentucky's 1.5-mile oval with a fifth last June and a top 10.

His hope is today can provide the boost that leads to a berth in NASCAR's 10-race playoff. Gordon will start 12th after the No. 24 Chevy clocked 181.653 mph.

"We know that this is an important race for us and every one from here on out is going to be crucial for us to get ourselves into the Chase as well as be a threat for the championship," Gordon said Friday.

"You always know if you're in it, then you have a shot at winning. Anything is possible when you accomplish that. We know that we've got to work hard and keep our heads up and build some momentum off the great run last week and here at Kentucky. This is crucial for us to run well here and follow up what we did at Sonoma."

The trick is avoiding misfortune that has kept him outside the top 10 for much of the season.

An accident at Bristol left Gordon 34th. A broken suspension hurt him at Texas (38th), a 1.5-mile track where he started eighth and led 15 laps.

Wrecks at Charlotte and Michigan have followed, putting Gordon in a must-win situation. If that hasn't been frustrating enough, his No. 24 Chevy hasn't been the greatest qualifier either by his standards, averaging 13th.

Gordon faced a similar hurdle last season before rallying late to claim the 12th-place wild-card spot. He eventually finished 10th in points thanks to a season-ending victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the only other track he hadn't won on.

In other words, nothing is impossible.

"It's pretty familiar to us. Maybe not quite at this level," Gordon said when asked if he can remember a more maddening season. "I think we were further back than 10th at this point last year than we are now. So, obviously last year things didn't go so well. I would point out this year and then 2000...

"It wasn't quite like dealing with some of the things we've had this year. Yeah, you know, it's certainly been frustrating."

Crew chief Alan Gustafson won't consider the idea that the team is snake-bit, but he concedes that weird things have happened more often than expected this season. At the same time, he sees hope in how the car and its driver have been performing in recent weeks, citing a third at Dover and 12th at Pocono as examples.

"There are times it just goes easy and I feel like we can get on a roll," he said. "We seem to be gaining a little pace."

Gordon said the main thing is keeping morale up through the struggles, which hasn't been easy. Last year proved that the team can recover, and he hopes that provides a template to follow.

"We have high expectations put on us," Gordon said. "We know the pressure that comes along with that to perform. And when we don't, the criticism comes with that.

"But I also know that nobody is more capable of pulling ourselves out of a hole and getting back on track than this team. It's Hendrick Motorsports. It's the No. 24 team and we have the capability of being very, very strong and getting on a roll."

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 30, 2013 A1

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