LOUDON, N.H. Two disappointing performances at New Hampshire International Speed-way last season made Jeff Gordon cross the track off his list of favorites.
But if Gordon wants to make a serious run at his fifth Winston Cup championship this season, disregarding the flat 1.058-mile track isn't in his best interest.
So his Hendrick Motorsports team tested at the track to figure out why the No. 24 Chevrolet struggled here last year, and Gordon now heads into the New England 300 on Sunday feeling good about his chances.
''We haven't been competitive the last couple of years and we used to really dominate this race track,'' Gordon said. ''I feel like we're getting close to where we were at this track.''
In 16 career starts at NHIS, Gordon has three wins, 10 top-10's and has led 912 laps. But last year he wasn't competitive and struggled to unGordon-like finishes of 29th and 14th.
But now that he finds himself trailing series leader Matt Kenseth by just 165 points in the standings making a fifth title a real possibility for Gordon this season improving at New Hampshire is extremely important.
Qualifying was rained out on Friday, so the field was set by points and Kenseth and Gordon will start next to each other on the front row. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is 258 points out of the lead, starts third.
Although Kenseth, Gordon and Earnhardt have had a solid lock on the top of the standings, Gordon isn't ready to say the run for the championship is down to a three-man race.
''I like math, but I'm not a mathematician, so I don't know who is considered a threat or not a threat,'' Gordon said. ''I would love to be able to say right now that it's a three-guy battle, but I think it's still too early. Some guys could still get on a roll and make up a lot of points.
''So it doesn't matter what everybody else does, it only matters what we do. That's what our focus is.''
Kenseth, a traditionally poor qualifier, will try to capitalize on his rare front-row starting spot by holding off Gordon for at least the first lap of the race. Doing so will guarantee Kenseth a five-point bonus for leading a lap and bonuses can often be pivotal points in a championship race.
Racing for points is just one of the few things Kenseth has had to adjust to in his life as the leader. In the hunt for his first career title, Kenseth has been on top of the standings since the fifth race of the year and has stayed there through consistency.
Now he's struggling to figure out if racing for wins is more important than playing it conservatively in order to get the most points possible.
''It's hard to say, especially for me not really being in a championship battle before,'' he said. ''Jeff's done it four times already, so he's probably got a litter better idea, but obviously, to most people, I think the championship has become a lot more important than winning races.''
Ryan Newman, meanwhile, might be a long shot to challenge for the championship, but the second-year driver is a certain threat to win on Sunday.
Newman scored his first career victory here last September and goes into Sunday's event with momentum following last week's win in Chicago.
Although bad luck and a highlight reel full of crashes has Newman in 16th-place in the standings, he's tied with Kurt Busch with a series-high three wins this season. His No. 12 Dodge was one of the fastest car on the track during Saturday's practice sessions, so the drivers in the front at the start will all be looking for him in their rearview mirror.
''He should be pretty strong,'' Gordon said. ''But I like our chances, too.''
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