MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) Slipping through to the third round of NASCAR's playoffs might just have made Jeff Gordon one of the favorites to win the championship.
Gordon has had a mediocre season and goes into Sunday's race at Martinsville Speedway winless on the year.
But there's no better track for him to spark a run toward a fifth championship.
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Gordon has eight career victories at Martinsville, which makes him a strong contender Sunday. A trip to victory lane would earn Gordon an automatic berth to the Chase for the Sprint Cup finale, and should he make it to the championship race, all bets are off and Gordon could ride off into retirement with a new title.
''We're carrying just a lot of confidence and momentum and pride right now knowing that we've had to grind it out just to get ourselves in the Chase,'' Gordon said Friday. ''That grind and that fight that we have in us is what we've been putting out there these last six weeks that have gotten us to this round.
''Now we get to continue that fight and grind, but we get to go do it at some tracks that we legitimately have a shot at competing for wins,'' he said. ''I'm pretty excited that we're where we're at and that we've made it this far.''
Of the eight drivers remaining in the Chase, Gordon is statistically the strongest at Martinsville.
After Martinsville, Gordon's numbers at Texas and Phoenix also shine. He has one win and nine top-five finishes in 29 races at Texas and two wins and 12 top fives in 33 races at Phoenix. He's won five more times at Martinsville than any of the other drivers still in the Chase, and he's got one career victory at Texas and two at Phoenix.
''I look at the tracks coming up, yeah, I feel good about it,'' he said. ''But we're still under the radar, and still I don't think anybody expects that to happen, and we like it that way.''
His numbers this season would support the underdog position.
Gordon has just four top-five finishes this season, 17 top-10 finishes and has led just 217 laps. Because of those stats, Kyle Busch doesn't consider Gordon a viable title contender to win the title. He thinks even if Gordon is eligible at Homestead, he won't be able to beat reigning champion Kevin Harvick or Joey Logano, who has won three consecutive races.
Harvick won Homestead last year to win the title.
''Being a longtime Jeff Gordon fan as a kid growing up years and years ago, I don't see Jeff Gordon winning it this year,'' Busch said. ''I just don't see him going to Homestead and being able to beat (Harvick), (Logano) right now. If it turns into more of a circus at Homestead, then possibly he's got a good shot at it. I think all of us do.''
Gordon last won a title in 2001, but was a serious threat last season before he was eliminated from the Chase at Phoenix, the cutoff race. Had he made it to the finale, he might have won the title - Gordon led 161 laps at Homestead last year and was headed toward the win until the final pit stop.
He'd like to have another shot this year.
''We never stop fighting and grinding. That's what we've had to do. Now we're just in that mode,'' Gordon said. ''We seem to really do a great job being consistent and getting the best finish. That's what we've been certainly doing in the Chase. If we do that for three more weeks, I think we make it to Homestead.''