Commentary

Gordon, Johnson looking for wins

Updated: March 31, 2012, 4:22 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Jeff Gordon and some of the people who run his website thought it would be funny to run a pre-April Fool's joke announcing that the four-time Sprint Cup champion will debut in the Monster Truck Series in a Rainbow Warrior paint scheme.

The way Gordon's been running this season, ranking a career-worst 25th in points after five races, who knew it wasn't serious?

Right?

Sorry, couldn't resist for all the reporters who spent time chasing down Gordon's joke the way they did the one Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage pulled in 2010.

Gordon is a long way from a second career. He may not be a long way from a win, either.

Gordon says the No. 24 car that led both of Friday's practices at Martinsville Speedway was hands down the best he'd ever driven on the half-mile track in the Virginia foothills. Those are strong words from one who has won here more times (seven) than any active driver.

[+] EnlargeDenny Hamlin
Jerry Markland/NASCAR/Getty ImagesDenny Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb have to like their chances Sunday. Hamlin will start the race third.

"A lot of people are thinking, 'How are they ever going to win another race and make up points?'" Gordon said Saturday as he explained his slow start. "I don't think we're that far from winning a race."

People sometimes forget just how good Gordon was -- and still is. People make a big deal about the incredible roll that defending Cup champion Tony Stewart is on with seven wins in his last 15 races dating back to last season.

Gordon did that twice, in 1998 and 1998-99.

It's unlikely that even Stewart with two wins this season -- or any driver -- ever will touch Gordon's modern-day record of 13 wins in 1998.

Not that you can blame people for forgetting these things. Even Gordon forgets sometimes just how impressive he was.

"I had kind of forgotten about it on my side," Gordon said of his 7-for-15 streak. "When you get into that zone, if I can recall 1998, you're going to the racetrack with a different mindset because you're going to the track to win.

"That's the mindset you have to have when you're doing that. It puts you at a different level. It allows you to focus on the different aspects of it. Not to question things. Not to doubt things. Just to deal with the details. That's what the winning teams do week in and week out."

Gordon also can relate to the line of questioning Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson went through Friday. Johnson's gone 11 straight races without a win and has only one win in the last 33 races.

You almost got the feeling that the questions were getting to Johnson during his media availability. First he referred to the Chill Foundation as the "Chili Foundation" when announcing the winner of his Helmet of Hope charity.

Then he thought for a brief moment that the Martinsville Speedway media center was on fire when he noticed steam coming from the appliance used to keep the food warm.

To add to Johnson's confusion, one reporter reminded he'd won only twice in the last 49 races and another reminded he'd won only once in the last 39 -- which really is 33.

"Man, what's messing with my head is the stats," Johnson said.

Before you know it, the five-time champion will forget he's a health freak and eat one of the track's famous red-dye hot dogs. It happens to the best of us.

He can ask Gordon for perspective. Gordon knows what it feels like to go from winning seemingly every race, as he did in 1998, to losing 11 in a row. Heck, he lost 66 in a row between 2009 and 2011.

And he's on a 16-race skid now.

"Everything you have to put in perspective," Gordon said. "When you set the tone and expectations you have, then you have to deal with what comes from that. [Johnson's] five championships in a row, all the wins, that's a great problem to have for people to be talking about [11 losses in a row].

"I remember for me, in the mid- to late-90s it was, 'OK, Jeff, you'll get to 200 wins by this time.' I was like, 'C'mon!' That's not realistic that you can keep up those kind of stats. You know you're going to go up and down. You have to be realistic about that."

Or make light of it.

"He hasn't won in 11 races?" Carl Edwards said in jest of Johnson's streak. "The poor guy."

For the record, Johnson isn't in panic mode, particularly when he's at a track where he has six wins and only one finish outside the top 10 in the last 19 races.

Jeff Gordon Right now, it's about putting a whole race together. I like the Chase format because we're still in it.

-- Jeff Gordon

Gordon isn't in panic mode, either. Remember when we were here a year ago? He was 16th in points and people were questioning whether he could make the Chase. He finished fifth at Martinsville, won twice in the next 20 races and started the 10-race playoff fifth.

Gordon has to be one of the favorites Sunday based on his history here and what we've seen this weekend. He'll start ninth Sunday. Teammate Kasey Kahne is on the pole.

Odds are you'll see Johnson (starting 22nd) and Denny Hamlin (third) up front, too. They won nine straight at Martinsville before last season when Kevin Harvick and Stewart took home the famed grandfather clock trophy.

"[Johnson's] probably one of the guys like myself that has a ton of confidence going in here that if you just give us a soap-box derby car we should be able to win with it," Hamlin said.

Said Johnson of Hamlin, "He's definitely is a player when we come to this track."

Johnson didn't have to say that. Hamlin told us early this week when he wrote on Twitter, "If you are wondering who to pick in fantasy this weekend … choose 11."

Don't discount Gordon, though. There's a lot left in his tank even though his performance hasn't shown it thus far. He's still a threat to contend for the title.

"Right now, it's about putting a whole race together," Gordon said. "I like the Chase format because we're still in it."

No joke.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter