Rainbow Warrior needs plate race


Published: Friday, July 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 1, 2005 at 1:26 a.m.
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NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon waves to fans as he walks through the garage area Thursday at Daytona International Speedway.

pan style="font-weight:bold">The Associated Press<
DAYTONA BEACH - The time is now for Jeff Gordon to get on the gas and race his way back into NASCAR's Chase for the Championship.
Gordon, the four-time series champion, has been in a free-fall the past six weeks, dropping from second to 14th in the standings. With just 10 races left to qualify for NASCAR's 10-race playoff series, Gordon is in danger of being shut out of the competition.
Will it actually happen? Well, he's only 14 points away from the qualifying cutoff mark - hardly far enough back to be considered out of it. And he races Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, where he's taken over as the master of restrictor-plate racing: Gordon has won four of the past five plate races and two in a row.
So Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports team are far from panicking.
''I feel like we're as good and as strong as any team out there. We've just got to get things going in the right direction and make some good decisions,'' Gordon said. ''We haven't really lost confidence. That's still there. The attitude of the guys is as good as it can be under the circumstances.
''So I don't think we've panicked or have lost control. We're just trying to put those behind us and learn from them and go to the next one.''
Gordon started the season with a dominating win in the Daytona 500, then scored two more victories to emerge as a legitimate threat to win his fifth Cup title.
But since finishing sixth at Darlington two weeks ago, Gordon has five finishes of 30th or worse. It looked like he was going to right the ship last weekend at the road course in Sonoma, Calif., where he started from the pole. But a blown transmission took him out of contention and he ended up 33rd.
It was a frustrating finish, but with Daytona in front of him, Gordon didn't get down. With 11 victories on Daytona's 2.5-mile superspeedway, Gordon comes in to the Pepsi 400 as the driver to beat.
''This is a good weekend for us,'' Gordon said. ''I'm definitely looking forward to Daytona and hoping that one of these weekends, it's going to get turned around. If it doesn't happen, then you just put your best foot forward and go to the next one.''
Still, his fans are getting a little worried.
At an autograph session in Michigan last month, dozens of fans handed over good luck charms. One man even painted a horseshoe to match his rainbow-colored car.
''They are coming in pretty strong,'' he said. ''It's great to have the support of our fans that we do and know that, even though they are frustrated like they are, they are still supporting us and knowing that we are going to get back on track and trying to help us any way that he can.''
There's at least one person who still believes Gordon will be a contender at the end of the season: During a conference call with reporters earlier this week, NASCAR chairman Brian France broke in for a final remark before Gordon hung up.
''All of this business that Jeff Gordon is not going to be in the Top 10 and all of those things ... I bet by the time we get to September, he'll not only be in the Top 10, he'll probably be a favorite to win it all,'' France said.
Not even that ringing endorsement could convince Gordon that he's a lock to make the Chase.
''This is the Nextel Cup Series and it's tough,'' Gordon said. ''Just because we've won four championships there is no guarantee, especially when you've had some of the issues we've had.''

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