CHARLOTTE, N.C. In any other season, Jeff Gordon would be a long shot to win the championship.
But under NASCAR's new points system, Gordon is a legitimate threat. After back-to-back victories the past two weeks, he might even be the top contender.
Coming off dominating wins on two very different racetracks the windy road course at Sonoma and the superspeedway at Daytona Gordon headed into Sunday's race in Chicago in third place in the standings, 232 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson.
Making up that kind of ground would have been a struggle under the old points system. But this year, NASCAR will reset the field with ten races to go and all drivers in the top 10 will run for the championship.
''If you're leading, you hate this system. And if you're way back, you love it,'' Gordon said. ''It's going to be extremely interesting as to how it all turns out over the final 10 because at that point, basically everything you did all year long is a wash.
''You'd just better hope that your momentum and the experiences you've had are the payoff and you have that in those last 10.''
Johnson, Gordon's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, has not wavered in his dislike for the new points system.
And why should he? He'll have worked hard for 26 races to put himself in position to win his first NASCAR championship. Then, just when it's within his reach, he'll have Gordon bearing down on him in pursuit of his fifth title.
It could be a strain on the four-year-old relationship that began when Gordon became Johnson's mentor, friend and co-owner of Johnson's car.
''It will be different for us,'' Johnson said. ''Obviously, we have raced against each other for wins and competed at that level, but a championship will be a whole new thing.''
Because the field will be reset, it's possible any of the drivers eligible for the final 10-race shootout could win the title. But garage insiders already have an idea on how it might play out.
''I think the two Hendrick cars have a really good chance of finishing 1-2 in the championship,'' said car owner Ray Evernham, who won three championships as Gordon's crew chief. ''Jimmie and Jeff both look like they can make a run at it.''
Until recently, Gordon was just trying to keep up with Johnson.
Although he has a series-high four victories and won back-to-back races in April at Talladega and California Speedway, the No. 24 team faltered with horrible runs in Charlotte and Dover.
The Charlotte race was the low point of the season. Gordon started third, but the car was never good and they finished 30th, seven laps down from race-winner Johnson.
''Charlotte lit a fire under us,'' he said. ''We had a miserable day and embarrassed ourselves and Rick Hendrick and our sponsors. We've been on a mission ever since.''
The rebound began in mid-June at Michigan, when Gordon won the pole and led 81 of the first 88 laps until his engine blew. Despite his 38th-place finish, Gordon showed he was back.
He's won two races since then, starting from the pole each time for three consecutive front-row spots.
''I tell you what, it makes me feel pretty darn good right now, that's for sure,'' Gordon said. ''What a way to get momentum to be strong week-in and week-out, on totally different types of tracks.''
Now he heads to Chicago, one of just four tracks on the circuit where Gordon has yet to win. Despite his failure to reach Victory Lane there, Gordon has two top-fives and an average finish of 7.6 in three starts at the 1.5-mile speedway.
Gordon, who needs just one more win to tie Cale Yarborough for third on Nextel Cup's modern-era list with 69 victories, would love for it to come at Chicago.
''It would be nice to win at a track that we haven't won on yet,'' he said. ''It's a cool statistic, but that's not my goal.
''My goal is to get better everywhere we go, try to win every race and, ultimately, win the championship. Winning at a track we've never won on would be icing on the cake.''
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