Jeff Gordon likes the direction of his team heading into the Chase For The Sprint Cup.
That might sound a little strange considering he has finishes of 10th, 27th, 11th, 13th and 12th in the last five races. For a driver who had 10 top-fives in the first 19 races, that doesn’t sound like the right direction.
But Gordon and his team have treated the last two months like a test session, or as crew chief Steve Letarte puts it: “Practice is over.”
Once Gordon’s team knew that it was safely in the Chase, it came to the track with an agenda to get better for the 10-week championship race.
“Some of it is we have just been experimenting and trying some things to get ready for the Chase,” Gordon said Wednesday during Chase Media Day in New York. “In order to do that, you have to try things that don’t always work. We actually should have finished better in a lot of races than we did.
“Our performance, while it’s not as strong as it was early in the season, it has the ability to step back up in the Chase, going to a lot of these tracks for a second time. We’re well prepared and ready.”
Letarte said Friday at New Hampshire that his team has dialed in the cars enough that he doesn’t anticipate any additional changes as far as setups. He said what might have appeared as struggles in recent weeks were just aggressive setups to see how the car would react throughout a race.
“We didn’t worry about consistency all summer, we didn’t worry about stats and we didn’t worry about top-fives,” Letarte said. “We worried about winning races, and we were very, very aggressive all weekend long trying to win a race. Sometimes we ended up with a 15th-place car because of it. But we learned a lot more this year being aggressive [in the first 26 races] than we have in year’s past where once we find a package, we race it all summer long.
“While that helps our stats and we look better through the summer, and we’ve been a favorite going into a lot of Chases, I don’t think we improved on our program. Now nobody even talks about us, we’re kind of under the radar, and that’s a good place to be because I think our race cars are better than in years past.”
Letarte said about 70 percent of the things they tried in the last couple of months didn’t work and about 30 percent did.
“We’ll be faster in the Chase because of it,” Letarte said. “We learned a lot of things that not necessarily worked or didn’t work, but they raced a little more difficult or were not as good on restarts, a lot of different things.
“Without testing [at Cup tracks], that’s a great amount of knowledge we gained over the summer and we’ll put it to the test here.”
The team will concentrate more on qualifying during Friday practice sessions during the Chase because it has its race setups ready to go.
“You can go to the race track and say, in the first half of practice, we’re going to try this, let’s say softer rear springs, and [in the] second half go to big springs,” Gordon said. “Now we’re at the point where it’s like, this [setup] is what we know has been the best for us all year. We are going to go with that and we’re going to fine tune that until we can’t fine tune it anymore and make it the best it can be.”
Gordon said he believes his team has found some things that will help him at New Hampshire, and possibly Dover and Charlotte.
Because of that, Gordon thinks he will have a top-10 car each weekend. But it will take a top-five car – and likely some wins – for Gordon, winless in his last 55 races, to capture his fifth Cup crown.
“It still does take consistency and that’s what we’re best at,” Gordon said. “We know there are tracks we can win at and we have to win at those tracks.”
Despite the winless streak, the team experimented for the Chase even though it might have cost Gordon in particular races the last two months.
“We’re not looking to have a day where we run fifth and have a good pit call and end up the winner,” Letarte said. “We’re looking for days like Texas, like Las Vegas – we want days where we lead three-quarters of the laps and give ourselves a chance to win.
“We’ll take a win any way we can get it. But you need to have fast enough cars to make your own destiny in this garage area. You can’t wait for somebody else to hand it to you.”
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