CONCORD, N.C. — Jeff Gordon earned the first of his 82 victories at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Now, 16 years later, he's stuck in the longest losing streak of his career.
But his pole-winning run has him in strong position to snap that 59-race drought Saturday night at Charlotte, where he has five career wins, but only one since 1999. It was Gordon's first pole of the year and a breakthrough victory this weekend would bolster his chance of winning the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
"This is huge and a huge shock," he said of earning the top starting spot. "We just have not been qualifying good this year and we haven't qualified this well at Charlotte for like 10 years. I thought for sure a half-dozen guys would beat us. It's awesome timing in the Chase."
Saturday night marks the halfway point in the Chase, and Gordon goes into the race ranked fourth in the standings. He's 85 points behind Jimmie Johnson, the four-time defending series champion and Gordon's one-time protege at Hendrick Motorsports.
There was a time this season, despite his failure to get to Victory Lane, when Gordon felt he was running better than his teammate. But as the summer dragged on and it came time to prepare for the Chase, it was Johnson and his No. 48 team that took off.
Gordon began to fade and hasn't contended for a victory in months. He hasn't earned a top-five since Chicago in July, and although he has three top-10s through the first four Chase races, he's not lighting the world on fire.
But Gordon is impressed with how his No. 24 team has handled the dropoff.
"I feel like we haven't emotionally gotten torn down. I feel like we've lost some momentum," Gordon said. "What a win does is carries you through more races on a high and with confidence. That is what I am proud of — we haven't won at all this year, we haven't won for a long time, and while we don't have the confidence that we had probably at that point in the season, we haven't self-destructed either."
Still, Gordon needs a strong finish Saturday night.
Johnson has surpassed Gordon as the most dominant driver at CMS, which Hendrick Motorsports has proudly claimed as its home track. The race team headquarters are just minutes away from the suburban Charlotte track, and HMS drivers are typically very good here.
But nobody has been as good as Johnson, a six-time Charlotte winner who completed the only perfect weekend of his career here last October when he led every practice session, won the pole and the race.
So as the Chase field is separating and Johnson is getting more and more comfortable atop the standings — he's got a 36-point lead over Denny Hamlin — the drivers chasing him know they can't let Johnson get any further ahead.
Hamlin is usually pretty decent at Charlotte, but doesn't have the finishes to show for it. He led 54 laps last October before his engine failed, hasn't had a top-10 finish at CMS since 2007 and has an average finish of 18.5.
And Kevin Harvick, third in the standings and 54 points back, has never had much success at Charlotte despite a win in the All-Star race. Through 19 career starts, he has just three top-10 finishes and average finish of 20.7 — worst among the Chase field.
That's not going to get it done against Johnson, who could deliver a knockout punch to the remaining contenders. Tony Stewart sits fifth in the standings, 107 points back, and he's about the last driver with any sort of chance of catching Johnson.
As always, Johnson is refusing to get too far ahead of himself.
"There is just so much racing left," he said. "I'm very proud of what we've accomplished and what we've done. But it doesn't mean a damn thing about this weekend's race or next weekend's race and on and on. You have to go out and like we always hear, you've got to go play the game.
"Well, I've got to go run the race and that's my job now."