The last man into the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup is hanging tough.
Jeff Gordon, added to the Chase field by executive fiat six days after the Richmond cheating fiasco, has moved from 13th seed at the start of NASCAR's annual playoff round to fourth in points after four races.
The four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion heads into Saturday night's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway some 32 points behind leader Matt Kenseth, with Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick second and third, respectively.
Gordon has reason to be encouraged and reason to believe his drive for a fifth Cup championship is still very much alive. In the two most recent races, he has posted consecutive top-five finishes at Dover International Speedway and Kansas Speedway, both times finishing ahead of Kenseth. Gordon has been very consistent of late, finishing eighth or better six times in the last seven races.
For Gordon to have a legitimate title shot, he needs to carry that momentum over to Charlotte, a track where he's had decidedly mixed results. In his last six starts at the fast 1.5-mile track, Gordon's average finish has been a discouraging 20.67, including a 35th in the spring when he crashed out.
For his career, though, Gordon has five race victories and 16 top-five finishes in 41 starts at CMS.
Another victory this time out would be huge. Gordon's last Sprint Cup triumph came at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the final race of the 2012 season. So far for Gordon, race wins have proven elusive in the Chase. In the 94 Chase races run since 2004, Gordon has won just four of them, while his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson has won 23 times.
If Gordon finds Victory Lane on Saturday night, he will be right back in the thick of the title fight. On the other hand, if he finishes outside the top 20 again, he can start looking toward 2014. It's really not much more complicated than that.
With track position at such a premium these days, Gordon knows he will have to qualify well on Thursday night to have a shot at winning. Qualifying has been largely hit or miss with Gordon and the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet this season. In 30 races, Gordon has one pole and seven top-five starts, and he also has nine starts outside the top 15.
"I'm excited because we ran really good at Charlotte earlier this year, and I think our mile and a half program has gotten so much better since then," Gordon said. " The big challenge is qualifying. We've got to qualify strong at Charlotte, and I know we're going to race good there."
The biggest source of optimism for Gordon is that his cars have gotten better lately, or at least better suited to him.
"We never stopped working and trying to get the cars to suit my liking," Gordon said. "And when the cars are solid and giving me good feedback and I can get aggressive with it, then my confidence goes up. And right now my team has been bringing great race cars to the racetrack, not just in the Chase but about three, four races I think prior to that, we just really started making some gains on some things, and it's shown up week in and week out. I'm having a lot of fun right now."
In fact, Gordon has flashed a competitive fire recently that shows he's still very much in it to win it.
"The confidence and how you feel about it is all in the performance of the car," said Gordon. "And it's a team effort. You know, I feel like I'm as responsible for that as anybody else on the team. And I take it hard just like everybody else on the team."