A question that has swelled during the Sprint Cup season will be answered today at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Is Jeff Gordon cursed by terrible racing luck, or is his worst season a sign of a glorious career entering a downslide?
Gordon, who was born in California but grew up in Pittsboro, Ind., about 15 miles from Indianapolis, has been at his best on this track. Gordon has the most wins (four), top-10s (14) and laps led (476) over the 18 Sprint Cup races at IMS. He was second last season, pushing winner Paul Menard to the end.
"A lot has changed since we were here last," Gordon said. "But I'm hoping we can take what we've learned in that time and be even faster, even better this year."
That would break a season-long pattern.
Gordon, who starts ninth in today's Brickyard 400, ranks 17th in points. His worst for a full season was 14th, as a rookie in 1993. He has only two top-fives, with a top finish of fourth at Texas Motor Speedway in April. He has had double-figure top-fives in 16 of the previous 17 seasons.
There have been mishaps along the way this year.
Gordon, who turns 41 next Saturday, was fifth in the Daytona 500 when an engine gave way. He led 329 laps at Martinsville until he was caught up in a wreck during a late restart. There was a dropped cylinder at Kansas and overheating at Talladega.
"I can't say they had a lot of good fortune," said ESPN analyst Dale Jarrett, the Cup winner in 1999. "I think Jeff has done a pretty good job of driving the car the majority of the years. He's still as talented as he ever was."
HEALTHY STANCE: Taken aback by speculation that his crew chief change was made largely because of the No. 99 team's disappointing season, Carl Edwards spent a good portion of a 20-minute interview Saturday explaining that Bob Osborne really is dealing with significant health issues.
Then Edwards was interrupted by some good-natured — but still fairly sharp — heckling from fellow driver Clint Bowyer, who was sitting nearby: "Hey, Carl! How many different ways can you explain why you fired somebody?" Bowyer yelled.
A day before his first race with new crew chief Chad Norris, Edwards went out of his way to say owner Jack Roush made the change because of Osborne's health issues — and not because the team is 11th in points.
"I can't overstate enough that Bob is a very, very dedicated guy to our sport, and he is going through something right now that would be tough for anyone," said Edwards, who starts second today. "And for him to have done what he has done at this level and to have kept it quiet, he is just a tough, tough man."
HAMLIN ON POLE: Denny Hamlin earned the pole for the 400 with a lap of 182.763 around the 2½-mile track And with a good run, Hamlin figures he can rev up his push for a title.
"This is the turning point of the season," he said. "We feel like from Indy to Richmond is when you're going to start to see who's going to fight for a championship."
Edwards (181.984 mph) is on the front row for the fourth time this season.
Tampa's Aric Almiriola (181.679) starts fourth, his best since a pole in May at Charlotte.
Sam Hornish, driving the No. 22 Dodge with AJ Allmendinger suspended after testing positive for an amphetamine, starts 24th. Hornish, the 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner, aims to become the first driver to win both the 500 and NASCAR's 400.