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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Jeff Gordon will return to form at Dover; Part-timer Martin will take the win

There’s one thing Jeff Gordon has always done well in his Cup career -- and that is win.

But 2008, to be kind, has been a difficult year for the four-time champion.

He and his crew chief, Steve LeTarte, have had serious trouble figuring out the COT, and the 2008 numbers for the winningest driver of the past 15 years are not kind.

He has zero wins and his average finish is 15th. For most drivers, that’s not bad. For Jeff Gordon, it’s downright terrible. He has always run up front on a regular basis, and that's just not happening this year. Often, his name is barely mentioned on Sunday.

Most stunning is how far off the team has been so many weeks this year. In the past, if Gordon wasn’t running up front it was usually because he had a mechanical issue or wrecked. This year, he’s just had a terrible car far too often, and been unable to get it right.

This week, don’t expect that to happen, as Dover is one place Gordon has figured out and should have an advantage. It’s a dangerous track, but it has been very kind to Gordon over the years -- as he's claimed four victories.

He sits on the pole, his first since Martinsville this spring. In Friday practice, he was also the top dog.

Young Guns like Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch have had Gordon’s number all year, but this week he’ll show them he’s not dead yet. Few people believe that Gordon has a legitimate shot at a fifth title this year, considering all the issues he’s had with the new car. But the Chase has become the grand equalizer, and he’s only 99 points out of the lead. If he pulled out a win this week, which is very possible, and the leaders faltered, he’d be right up in the mix. Greg Biffle’s six-spot jump in the standings after last week’s win shows how volatile the standings are early in the Chase.

I’m not expecting miracles from Gordon this season, and don’t think he’ll finish better than mid-pack in the Chase, but he will have a solid run on Sunday. Look for a top-5 from the former top dog at Hendrick Motorsports.

In his vicinity will be Kyle Busch, who should contend for the win after a terrible weekend last week at Loudon. Two straight off-weeks hasn’t been something this team has seen all season, and it’s not likely to happen now. Co-points leaders Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson will have strong runs once again, and look for Biffle to stay on the point leaders’ heels with another solid finish.
Further back in the pack, keep your eyes on Travis Kvapil. He’s been pretty solid this year at Yates Racing, and has shown plenty of speed at Dover. He may be good enough for a top-10 finish on Sunday.

So who’s going to win? None of the above. It’s going to be another old guy … Mark Martin. Longtime fans will have flashbacks to 1998 as Gordon and Martin spend much of the day swapping the lead. Martin is running part-time this year, but has looked like the man to beat on a couple occasions. His part-time status doesn’t make him unable to win, as he’s notched finishes of 8th or better the last three times he’s raced. I say Martin gets DEI the checkered flag as a parting gift, with his departure to Hendrick for a “final” full season coming at the end of this year.

Drivers on the move?
One major seat remains open in NASCAR next season. The #41 has a sponsor (Target), but as of now no driver. Rumor is A.J. Allmendinger may be headed here, as he hasn’t yet heard of Red Bull’s plans for 2009. It’s looking more like Scott Speed may be getting the #84 next year.

Also on the move may be Paul Menard, who has acknowledged he will be deciding soon whether to stay at DEI or move over to Yates Racing. If he’s smart he’ll make the move to Yates. He’s currently the third best car at a DEI team that’s weak overall. There’s no reason to stick around, not to mention Yates is performing pretty well lately and could use the sponsorship he’d bring with him. The move won’t make him a world-beater, but he might do better than 27th in points. If this move happens, David Gilliland will likely be seeking a job for 2009.

Stop with the ‘Big One’ references
While watching coverage of Friday’s practice, the announcers were showing past clips of Dover wrecks and indicating the a “Big One“ can happen at any time at this track. This annoys me to no end. I understand that the TV people are all about the wrecks and want to hype the “Big One” at Daytona and Talladega. I’ve come to accept that is going to happen. But when they start saying it might happen at Dover, it’s getting silly. Note to TV people: Six or seven cars wrecking at Dover is not a “Big One” … it’s just an accident.


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