Take Jeff Gordon against the field.
Certainly not next week at Texas.
And if teammate Jimmie Johnson isn’t in Sunday afternoon’s hunt at Martinsville Speedway too, well, that could be a sign of something significantly wrong in the Rick Hendrick camp.
Hendrick men dominated the Cup tour last season, winning fully half the races, and running away in the championship chase.
But so far this season Hendrick is 0-for-5.
That should change today. And if it doesn’t, expect some scowls in that camp.
Already Gordon is miffed at the media for asking so many questions about this “winless streak.” But then he and Johnson set the bar.
“I know we’re just terrible this year – it’s awful to be 14th in the points five races in,” Gordon, on the pole for the 2 p.m. start of the Goody’s 500, says in mock-sarcasm. “I can’t believe how rough it is over at Hendrick Motorsports.”
But Gordon agrees “We hold a very high standard, and expectations. So when you’ve had the type of year we had last year, it’s only natural for expectations to be high…and if we don’t live up to them we’re going to get criticized, and people are going to question.
“We’ve had a couple of things bite us this year. But, as far as how well we’ve run, we’ve run great except for Bristol.
“Bristol is the only track we were truly only a 10th or 11th-place car.
“We’ve been a lot better than that this year at a lot of tracks and haven’t put those finishes together.
“We just try to get into a rhythm, get that consistency going, and get ourselves where we need to be solidly in the chase.
“Last year we started off the season strong—ran strong all the way through, and consistent…and we didn’t win the championship. It doesn’t matter if we’re 15th or second in the points (right now), it’s not what you’re shooting for if you’re not the champion when it’s all over.”
And there’s no denying that here this weekend Gordon is fired up, and feisty.
“I’ve won seven times here, that’s awesome, so we’re excited about being at Martinsville,” he says. “It’s a great track for us.
“We didn’t have the car we wanted in Bristol, so we’ve got work to do there. But this has always been a solid track for us.”
After losing three straight times to teammate Johnson here, including last year’s somewhat bitter finish, Gordon may have an edge this time around.
When it comes to beating and banging, like Gordon and Johnson did here last year, “there’s not a fine line anymore,” Gordon says. “I mean I really hit him hard on that last corner….and I still didn’t move him up the track enough to make the pass.
“And honestly you really don’t want to win races that way. I wouldn’t have felt good about it if I hit him any harder.
“He drove a great race, they had great pit strategy and put themselves in that position, and we didn’t have the car to pass him…or at least get up beside him a little bit further to really bang wheels and get the win.”
With NASCAR’s new winged car, beating and banging doesn’t quite get the job done like with the old car.
“You can hit guys with this car, and the bumpers line up, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to move a guy enough to make the pass.
“In the past, if you tapped the guy, usually your bumper actually went under his bumper and lifted him up. With this car, you actually have to hit them. In the past you weren’t really hitting them, just lifting the back of the car.
“But you don’t want to have to do that anyway. You want to have a car that turns under them, or out-brakes them in the corner.
“Just to run in the back of them, anybody can do that.”
Gordon and Johnson were so far ahead of the competition at this point last season, particularly ahead of Jack Roush’s five teams, that they sometimes made a mockery of the racing.
“Obviously the competition has really stepped it up,” Gordon says. “We’re strong, we’re not that far off. But the competition has been better than us.
“We’ve got some work to do to lead more laps and put ourselves in position to win.”
Hanging over Gordon and the other drivers here are not only next week’s race at untested Texas Motor Speedway – in light of Atlanta’s tire issues – and the upcoming race at repaved Darlington Raceway, where drivers are hitting 200 mph going into the corners.
Now 200 mph may sound cool, but drivers say that’s way too fast at a track as small as Darlington….though NASCAR officials have so far done nothing to address that issue. Goodyear, in response, is expected to bring very hard tires to Darlington, in what is shaping up as a repeat of the Atlanta debacle.
Gordon, one of the men who just did a second tire test at Darlington, says repaving a track presents “the most challenging thing that all of us have in this sport.
“The polymers in the paving these days gives the track a very smooth surface with a lot of grip. So you’re going to be really, really fast, and you’re going to build a lot of heat up in the tires—literally doing 200 mph into turn three.
“So it’s a challenge.
“We’re very proud of how it went and what Goodyear did. There are going to be teams that like the tire and other teams that aren’t….because you have to take the grip away to keep the speeds down and keep the heat out of the tires so we don’t have any issues.
“I promise you it’s not going to be like Atlanta. They’re being conservative for the right reasons, but it’s not so far conservative we’re not going to like it.
“I’ve learned a lot about paving over the years, and it’s changed with the polymers involved – that holds the pavement together and makes it last longer, makes it smooth with a lot of grip.
“The last time they paved Darlington was around 1996; they didn’t have the polymers in the pavement, so in one year it was right back to old Darlington.
“I don’t think this track is going to get back to old Darlington for a number of years.
“And that’s the trend we’ve been seeing in new tracks and repaves.”
And Texas? That’s a wicked place, and for some reason NASCAR refused to schedule any testing there, preferring instead to test at Phoenix and Pocono, decisions that have been second-guessed as ill-advised, not only for possible tire issues but also with this new winged car and its sometimes awkward handling characteristics.
“As far as Texas, I don’t really know,” Gordon frets. “None of us tested there.
“That track is not as abrasive as Atlanta, so I feel Goodyear is pretty confident with what they’re taking there.
“I’m much more concerned with our set-up and what we have with this car at that track because we’ve never been there with this (new winged) car.”
And Texas has never been a great track for Gordon anyway. He struggles to get top-10s.
But that’s ahead, and Martinsville is now, and Gordon knows he needs to get a good race in here.
“Oh, yes, turn things around…it has been terrible,” Gordon says with a laugh.
“I don’t mind people saying ‘Hey, you are 14th in points, you aren’t having the year you had last year.’ But it bothers me when somebody says we aren’t running good, because we have been running great.
“If we are at fault for anything, it is we were off at Bristol.
“I’ll take blame for the crash in Vegas.
“I think the team feels responsible for what happened to us in Daytona.
“But we put those things aside. We have been running strong, we have been leading laps and running up front. But the competition has stepped up…and we have to step up as well.
“We certainly need to be better.
“But honestly it is not time to panic. I am not concerned. I feel good about where our team is. We have a championship-caliber team.
“I am more concerned about the way we ran at Bristol than anything.
“So it is pretty much business as usual for us.
“I know Jimmie did some testing. I am not sure about Casey Mears and Alan Gustafson. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in pretty good shape.
“So it’s business as usual.”
Unless Gordon or Johnson fails to win here.