CONCORD, N.C. — Jeff Gordon earned the first of his 82 victories at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Now, 16 years later, he's stuck in the longest losing streak of his career.
But his run Thursday night to earn the pole for tonight's Sprint Cup race has him in strong position to snap that 59-race drought. It was Gordon's first pole this year and a breakthrough victory in the Bank of America 500 would bolster his chance of winning the Chase for the Championship for his fifth series title.
"This is huge and a huge shock," he said of earning the top starting spot. "We just have not been qualifying good this year, and we haven't qualified this well at Charlotte for like 10 years. I thought for sure a half-dozen guys would beat us. It's awesome timing in the Chase."
Tonight marks the halfway point in the Chase, and Gordon goes in fourth in the standings. He's 85 points behind Jimmie Johnson, the four-time defending series champion and Gordon's teammate and one-time protege at Hendrick Motorsports.
There was a time this season, despite failing to reach Victory Lane, when Gordon felt he was running better than his teammate. But then Johnson and his No. 48 team took off; meanwhile, Gordon hasn't contended for a victory in months.
But Gordon is impressed with how his No. 24 team handled the dropoff.
"I feel like we haven't emotionally gotten torn down. I feel like we've lost some momentum," he said. "What a win does is carries you through more races on a high and with confidence. That is what I am proud of — we haven't won at all this year, we haven't won for a long time, and while we don't have the confidence that we had probably at that point in the season, we haven't self-destructed either."
Still, Gordon needs a strong finish tonight.
Johnson has surpassed Gordon as the dominant driver at CMS, which Hendrick Motorsports proudly claims as its home track. Team headquarters are just minutes from the suburban Charlotte track, and HMS drivers are typically very good here.
But nobody has been as good as Johnson, a six-time Charlotte winner who completed the only perfect weekend of his career here last October when he led every practice, earned the pole and won the race. Gordon has five wins at Charlotte but only one since 1999.
As for Johnson? As always, he refuses to get too far ahead of himself.
"There is just so much racing left," he said. "I'm very proud of what we've accomplished and what we've done. But it doesn't mean a damn thing about this weekend's race or next weekend's race and on and on. You have to go out and like we always hear, you've got to go play the game.
"Well, I've got to go run the race and that's my job now."