NEW YORK — Jeff Gordon has one win in his last 103 races and is mired in the longest losing streak of his illustrious career. Yet as he heads into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, he likes his title chances.
Why? Because the four-time champion believes consistency can carry him to a fifth title.
"Consistency has always been one of our strengths, which is why I think the old points system worked well for us," said Gordon, who won his last title in 2001 under the season-long championship structure but has not finished higher than second in five Chase appearances.
"We'll approach these 10 races with the same mindset. Sure, you're trying to win each race, but 10 races is longer than many people realize. You want to make sure you get the absolute best finish you can each week and not put yourself into a position where you end up with a 30th- or 35th-place finish.
"Those are the things that allow you to put top-fives and top-10's together to win championships."
Gordon is one of five drivers headed into Sunday's Chase opener at New Hampshire with a 60-point deficit to leader Denny Hamlin. He spent most of the season ranked second in the standings, dropped to third after Saturday night's race at Richmond and then fell to eighth under the reseed of the Chase field.
He's spent the past several weeks downplaying his failure to win a race this season, instead choosing to focus on his 13 top-10 finishes over the first 26 races. He was in position to win about five different times but came up short and settled for finishing second or third six different times this season.
So he now finds himself at the back of the pack needing a near flawless run at New Hampshire to close the gap on the championship leaders.
But there are many who believe the champion will have to win at least one race during the Chase, and there will be no room for even one poor finish in such a stout field. It makes the opener at New Hampshire critical under the seeding system, particularly for the drivers who already find themselves 60 points out.
Among them is Carl Edwards, the Columbia, Mo., native, who had a red-hot summer to toss his name into the ring of contenders. Still winless since the 2008 finale, he has managed to break free of the early season Roush-Fenway Racing problems to emerge as their best championship hope.
Edwards has eight top-10 finishes in the last nine races, and the exception was a 12-place finish at Bristol. So long as he qualifies well, he thinks he's got a shot Sunday.
"It's a short race without a lot of cautions, so qualifying will be important," he said. "We've been qualifying a lot better lately and our setups have been pretty good, so I'm very optimistic that we will be contenders at Loudon. We need to start off the Chase on the right foot and not get behind from the start."
Edwards is at the bottom of the pack with teammate Matt Kenseth, the 2003 series champion who has been up-and-down this season and has just one top-five in the last 14 races. Kenseth has had three crew chiefs this season and managed to stay inside the top 12 despite the turmoil.
But New Hampshire is not a great track for him. He was 17th there in June, and in 21 career starts has only 11 top-10s.
"I'm really happy that we're a part of the Chase this year, now our focus has to be to make sure that we go out and perform the best we can so that we're able to close up some of the point difference between where we're at versus the leaders," he said. "New Hampshire is a track that has always been a challenge for me, and I feel like it hasn't been one of my better tracks on the circuit."
Also winless this season is Clint Bowyer, who holds the 12th spot in the Chase field and, like the others, is 60 points behind Hamlin.
Bowyer, though, has been running very well over the last month and was the only driver who had to race his way into the Chase at Richmond. His sixth-place finish was his third consecutive top-10, and all came when he was racing to save his season. He overcame a pit road penalty at Bristol, an ill-handling car at Atlanta and the pressure of having to perform at Richmond to lock up the Chase with the three strong finishes.
But with just two career Cup wins and none since 2008, Bowyer is likely going to have to get to Victory Lane to take the championship. He grabbed his first career victory in the 2007 Chase opener at New Hampshire, and it pushed him to a career-best finish of third in the final season standings.
Unlike Gordon, Bowyer believes it's going to take a win or two to win the title.
"I want to win a race, and I feel like we keep getting closer and closer," he said. "We have to get better at closing the deals if we expect to compete for a championship with these guys."
1. Denny Hamlin, 5,060 points
Best New Hampshire finish: 1st (Summer 2007) in 9 career starts at the track
2. Jimmie Johnson, 5,050 points
Best New Hampshire finish: 1st (three times) in 17 career starts at the track
3. Kevin Harvick, 5,030 points
Best New Hampshire finish: 1st (Fall 2006) in 19 career starts at the track
4. Kyle Busch, 5,030 points
Best New Hampshire finish: 1st (Summer 2006) in 11 career starts at the track
5. Kurt Busch, 5,020 points
Best New Hampshire finish: 1st (three times) in 19 career starts at the track
6. Tony Stewart, 5,010 points
Best New Hampshire finish: 1st (twice) in 23 career starts at the track
7. Greg Biffle, 5,010 points
Best New Hampshire finish: 1st (Fall 2008) in 16 career starts at the track
8. Jeff Gordon, 5,000 points
Best New Hampshire finish: 1st (three times) in 31 career starts at the track
9. Carl Edwards, 5,000 points
Best New Hampshire finish: 2nd (Summer 2006) in 12 career starts at the track
10. Jeff Burton, 5,000 points
Best New Hampshire finish: 1st (four times) in 31 career starts at the track
11. Matt Kenseth, 5,000 points
Best New Hampshire finish: 2nd (Fall 2004) in 21 career starts at the track
12: Clint Bowyer, 5,000 points
Best New Hampshire finish: 1st (Fall 2007) in 9 career starts at the track