SONOMA, Calif. — NASCAR's annual trip to Sonoma has always been a celebration for Jeff Gordon. Surrounded by family and friends, he enjoys some fine wine, a game or two of croquet and his many personal milestones.
Two years ago he threw an engagement party here, and last year he celebrated the birth of his first child. The party this trip is daughter Ella's first birthday, planned for after the garage closes Saturday at Infineon Raceway.
But if Gordon has it his way, the celebration will stretch to Victory Lane on Sunday with his first win of the year. He had already scored four of his six 2007 victories by this point last season, but the four-time Cup Series champion has struggled to duplicate those efforts this year.
He said he's ”not yet“ frustrated by this winless streak. Instead, his aggravation is directed at the ups and downs his Hendrick Motorsports team is experiencing.
”I'm more frustrated that we're not more competitive,“ Gordon said. ”To me, you can be the fastest car out there and not get wins. So that's not really bothering me. What's bothering me is that we're hit or miss. We've put some top-fives together — some of them we earned, some of them we earned by strategy.
”We didn't go out there and really perform well enough to get those and that's where I feel like we really want to be — really getting the performance of our car.“
Gordon was a model of consistency last season, racking up a NASCAR record 30 top-10 finishes in the 36 points races. He built a lead of more than 300 points on the competition during the ”regular season,“ then staged an epic battle with teammate Jimmie Johnson for the championship before finally settling for second in what will go down as one of the greatest seasons of his career.
So why has his performance fallen so far off? He does have six top-fives through the first 15 races, but those finishes are pocked by days like Pocono and Michigan, where he was an uncharacteristic 14th and 18th.
Gordon points to the full-time use of the Car of Tomorrow as one of the issues plaguing the No. 24 team. Hendrick Motorsports was better than every other team last season in managing the back-and-forth swapping of the new and old cars, and maybe this year other teams have simply caught up because there's only one car to focus on.
”We weren't on mile-and-a-half tracks with this car. We had the old car and we had the old car dialed in. We had this car dialed in for the tracks we were going to. And it was really that we had it more dialed in than our competitors,“ Gordon said. ”Our competitors went to work and they've gotten better. And we've got to step up.
”It's very easy to get behind. Our teammates have done a little bit better job of catching up than we have, and that's where I want us to get better.“
Indeed, teammates Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have each been to Victory Lane once this season. And while Gordon is ninth in the standings and in Chase contention, Earnhardt is third in the points and Johnson is fifth.
But Sonoma is Gordon's chance to shine. He's an exceptional road racer with nine career victories on NASCAR's two road courses. Five of those wins were here at Infineon, including three straight from 1998 to 2000. He last won here in 2006, and has 11 top-10s in his 15 career starts.
As much as he'd like to duplicate his past success on Sunday, he won't make it a make-or-break race for his season.
”I don't want to put that kind of pressure on us to feel like we have to win here, and then if we don't it's our last opportunity or a failed weekend,“ he said. ”I really just want to come in here and do what we know we're capable of doing and try not to make mistakes — put the best car out there and go about it like we would any other time, whether we came in here with four or five wins or with no wins.“