SONOMA, Calif. Everything was going so smoothly for Jeff Gordon.
Coming off a second-place finish at Darlington early in May, the four-time NASCAR champion was second in the season points standings, trailing only Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, and seemingly cruising toward a spot in the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship.
Fast forward five races and Gordon is floundering. After finishing 30th or worse in four of those events, Gordon heads into Sunday's Dodge/Save Mart 350 in 12th place, 406 points behind Johnson.
Only the top 10 drivers in the standings and those within 400 points of the leader after the first 26 races are eligible to run for the title over the final 10 races of the season.
That gives Gordon 11 races to get things back in order, and he couldn't be happier that the first of those events is on Infineon Raceway's 1.99-mile, 12-turn road course, where he has had considerable success.
''Yeah, this is definitely a place we enjoy coming to, no matter if we're coming off a win or a horrible day like we had at Michigan,'' said Gordon, who fought tire problems last Sunday at Michigan and wound up 32nd. ''You know, I hate that we've come in here with that kind of pressure, but we do need to get some things turned around and this is a track where we can get some things turned around.''
Indeed it is.
In 12 starts at the picturesque wine country track about 15 miles from his hometown of Vallejo Gordon has four victories in his last seven starts, including a win from the pole last year. In all, he has seven top fives and eight top 10s here.
There's rarely much doubt who is the favorite to win when the Cup drivers arrive at Infineon each year for one of only two road course races on the schedule.
''Jeff Gordon is a whale of a race car driver, but everybody in the garage knows that car is incredible,'' said Mark Martin, who will start third Sunday, right behind Gordon and Johnson. ''It drives the teams crazy, but it is what it is.
''Not taking any credit away from Jeff Gordon, but he clobbers everybody with it. Everybody is trying to figure it out and it looks like we might be closer than we were last year.''
Gordon agrees that his No. 24 Chevrolet is a great road racing car, but he is taking nothing for granted.
''We're not guaranteed a win or a good finish at Sonoma, but we know we're capable of it,'' he said.
Gordon pointed out that one small mistake can spoil your day on a road circuit as fast and challenging as Infineon.
''The biggest challenge is the downshifting,'' he said. ''You are driving hard into the corners and braking very deep, all while downshifting the car to get it slowed down and into the proper gear.
''You hear a lot of drivers talk about wheel-hopping in this situation. It's easy to get the rear tires bouncing, and that can get the car out of control. But, that's what's fun about racing here: braking; downshifting; taking the car left and right through the corners; feeling the car swing both ways; driving up over the curbs; and the elevation changes.''
Johnson, who holds a 49-point lead over Greg Biffle, has virtually identical equipment as Gordon, but his record at the Sonoma track bears little similarity to that of his teammate and car owner.
''I'm still learning my way around the road courses,'' said Johnson, whose only top 10 finish in three starts here was fifth last year.
''But I couldn't have a better teacher. As I usually do, I watch what Jeff does and try to learn from that. He really is amazing on the road courses.''
Biffle, winner of two of the last three Cup races, will start 41st in the 43-car field. He has finished 37th and 13th in his only two starts here, and had a scary moment Friday when he flew off the course during his disappointing qualifying effort.
''I was inside there going, 'whoa!' I think it would have been fifth or so without that, but I'm not worried about it,'' said Biffle, who has a series-high five wins this season, two more than Gordon. ''We've got a great car. We still stand a solid chance of running top five here.''
At this point, Gordon would also settle for a top-five finish.
''Sure, we'd love to win another one here,'' he said. ''But, right now, we've just got to get things going in the right direction.''
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