Commentary

Jeff Gordon needs to think wins

Updated: September 21, 2012, 3:25 PM ET
By Ricky Craven | ESPN

Editor's note: An explanation of Ricky's "Rule of 72" can be found here.

With one race completed in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the Rule of 72 is already giving us information about this year's Chase and the challenges facing each driver.

The most obvious example is Jeff Gordon, who had the worst day among the 12 Chase drivers at Chicagoland with a 35th-place finish.

As Gordon had no bonus points coming in, he's already at 35 points in the Rule of 72. If he has another bad week in New Hampshire, we're going to be talking about Jeff being eliminated after only two races. That's hard to imagine. But that's what the Rule of 72 was created for: It lets us know which drivers are in danger or already out of contention and which drivers are still in the hunt.

What it means for Gordon is he must average a fourth-place finish in the next eight races to stay in contention.

Averaging a fourth-place finish for the next eight races isn't impossible. But you could argue it's not probable. There's so much risk when you consider the unpredictability of tracks like Talladega and Martinsville.

I believe Gordon has got to go for wins. I don't think you can climb back into the Chase with a "good on average" attitude. He's got to go to New Hampshire and race the way Jimmie Johnson raced last week. His objective needs to be a max-points day and the points for winning the race. And his crew chief, Alan Gustafson, has to be willing to gamble a little.

At the other end of the spectrum is Brad Keselowski. With his win at Chicagoland and his nine bonus points, he's at minus 8 in the Rule of 72, as the formula accounts for bonus points as if they were finishing positions. Thanks to his outstanding weekend, he has the luxury of being able to average a ninth-place finish for the next eight races and still be above the formula's cut-off going into the last race of the Chase.

Denny Hamlin, who was the No. 1 seed when the Chase began, is tied with Clint Bowyer for fifth in the Rule of 72 standings, despite finishing 16th. I still believe it's going to come down to Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson in the end. But I think Denny, at this point, has to appreciate the 12 bonus points he earned in winning four regular-season races.

I felt like Denny was destined for a top-five finish before he ran out of fuel and dropped like a rock. Had he not earned those 12 bonus points, Hamlin and his team would be in a much different frame of mind right now. I don't think he has to press just yet. But those are the kind of mistakes that can potentially prevent a team from winning a championship.

I think what happened to Hamlin magnifies the responsibilities within a race team. We pay so much attention to the driver, but the crew chief and the crew are just as important. And I said this my entire career: There's a million ways to lose a Sprint Cup race. Quite clearly, you need to be nearly perfect to win one.

Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick and others who finished outside the top 10 can honestly say Chicagoland wasn't a disaster. But it's bad to finish outside the top 10 in a Chase race the same week that Jimmie Johnson finishes second. Winning in the Chase isn't just about managing the bad days -- it's about not creating too big a deficit between you and Johnson. He sets the mark. And unless he has mechanical issues, you'd better not let him out of your sight.

The thing that's most remarkable about Jimmie Johnson is that he doesn't race like a points racer. He drives like a Kyle Busch or a Dale Earnhardt Sr., in terms of squeezing everything out of the car and taking risks. But he has the talent to back it up. Coming from a guy who spent 25 years behind the wheel, I really marvel at some of the things he's able to do with a race car.

This weekend's race at New Hampshire offers a different set of challenges. New Hampshire is not a track where there are two or three grooves to run. Basically, there's one lane through the corners, and if you choose to run side by side, it's likely you will lose time.

Sprint Cup cars drive more comfortably on high-banked tracks and struggle on flat tracks like New Hampshire. You need to use all of the racetrack exiting the corners to get more speed out of the car. So I expect to see more physical racing, more contact and more willingness to gamble. We could see two-tire stops, maybe even no-tire stops.

Ricky Craven is a driver with wins in all of NASCAR's top three series, including rookie of the year titles in both the 1992 Nationwide Series and 1995 Sprint Cup series. He currently serves as a NASCAR analyst on ESPN studio programs.

Ricky Craven is a driver with wins in all of NASCAR's top three series, including rookie of the year titles in both the 1992 Nationwide Series and 1995 Sprint Cup series. He currently serves as a NASCAR analyst on ESPN studio programs.