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CUP: Can Gordon Turn It Around At 'Dega?

Could Sunday's Aaron’s 499 be the race where Jeff Gordon finally turns his season around?

Gordon is currently 21st in the Sprint Cup point standings. But the four-time NASCAR champion, who has finished outside of the top 10 just once since his rookie year in 1993, isn’t concerned — yet.

“The only thing that weighs on me is, I know that we’re better than where we are,” Gordon said. “I know that we don’t belong in the position that we’re in. ... We have not seen the results of the performance. And that’s racing. That’s just part of it.

"I mean, we have been on an amazing streak of good fortune and doing things right. And this year we can’t seem to do anything right.

“But, it’s a long season. There’s a lot to change and still a lot that’s going to happen. I think we’re very capable of winning races. And we’re certainly not out of it yet. So, to me, being outside the top 10 in points right now means nothing.”

Gordon has not won a title since the inception of the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2004. But he believes NASCAR’s new format offers teams a mulligan for getting back in the hunt.

“Now if this was 1998, then that would be a whole different situation,” Gordon said. “This season would be completely done. And with the new Chase format, the season is never done until you get one or two races within the Chase.

“At this point we are not out of it. We are still in it because, until we don’t win any races or until we are not in that top 10 when it comes to Chicago, we still have a shot at it.”

At 40, Gordon doesn’t consider his age to be a factor. He says he entered 2012 “feeling as good as I ever have.”

And though Gordon said he doesn’t believe in luck, he remains confident with the caliber of equipment and personnel at Hendrick Motorsports.

Certainly, Gordon’s record at Talladega should offer the team a bump. He leads all active drivers at the superspeedway with six-career Cup wins. However, two years after Gordon swept the races on the 2.66-mile speedway, tandem drafting at the two restrictor-plate tracks (Daytona and Talladega) became the trend.

And Gordon evolved into more of a victim than a victor. In the last six Talladega races, he's posted just one top five and two top 10’s with an average finish of 19.5.

While there are those drivers who enjoy tandem-style drafting, Gordon isn’t one of them. He doesn’t think the practice is safe. However, the evolution of changes NASCAR instituted with the restrictor-plate package prior to the Daytona 500 should separate the cars here at Talladega, particularly with temperatures in the high 80’s forecast for Sunday.

“We all know how big of an issue it was to keep the engines cool or the water temp cool (at Daytona),” Gordon said.

“It’s going to be a major issue here. I think that is the first thing that we are going to be working on. Really not even pushing, just being in a regular draft. Just trying to see in these temperatures how we are going to be able to manage the water and oil temperature.

“I think it is going to be a real challenge. I wouldn’t be surprised if you actually see some concessions before this race starts.”

As of Friday evening, NASCAR had not altered the existing cooling package for the cars or changed the size of the restrictor plate. But Gordon anticipated a lot less pushing and more pack racing with the current set-up.

And like most competitors, Gordon is optimistic the drivers will more of a factor in Sunday’s outcome.

“What I found at Daytona was getting back to normal drafting, or I guess we could call it the old way of drafting with the pack,” Gordon said.

“I feel like the things that I’ve learned and the things that I have been good at on the restrictor-plate races, the things I learned from Earnhardt years ago, are the tools that you can now use to win the race, which make me more comfortable and make me enjoy this type of racing more; and allows you to create opportunities yourself instead of totally relying on the car that you’re pushing or the car that’s pushing you.

“So, yeah, I definitely think this brings things back into our own hands a bit.”

NUMBERS GAME

34 - Sprint Cup drivers who participated in Happy Hour.

199 - Races won by Hendrick Motorsports, Toyota Racing and the No. 11 on a variety of cars.

195.697 mph – Best 10 lap average posted by Brad Keselowski — tops among competitors.

SAY WHAT?

Kyle Busch on whether NASCAR should eliminate the wave around rule during race cautions: "Hell no, hell no. We had that (before the wave around rule) and it was stupid because we were watching lap down cars take the green flag as the leader and the leaders actually in the back of the pack — it was the most confusing thing we've ever seen."