Gordon and crew keeping cool

LOUDON, N.H. -- Crew chief Alan Gustafson and his No. 24 crew are upbeat and smiling -- more than one would expect for a Sprint Cup team that is 17th in points -- as they push their car through inspection at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Gustafson is talking about making the Chase as one of the two wild cards even though there are four teams ahead of the 24 in points with a victory and two others ahead in points without a win.

The reason for the optimism?

Jeff Gordon.

Many drivers who have had as much bad luck, who have seen as many great runs turn into disastrous finishes, as Gordon has this year would be pointing fingers and possibly looking for massive change. Many, particularly when used to winning and competing for titles, as Gordon is, might be so harsh over the in-car radio that they rip the cohesiveness of the group apart.

Wild-Card Race

A look at the race for the two wild-card positions for the Chase based on wins and being inside the top 20 in points.

Many would be avoiding the media, be evasive with fans and simply hard to live with.

Not the four-time champion. Gordon is almost as upbeat as if he were leading in points. He's spent more time giving crew members pep talks -- some of them on an individual basis -- than at any other time during his career.

He's answered maybe more questions on a weekly basis than points leader Matt Kenseth, and he's signed as many autographs as any driver in the Sprint Cup garage.

He's kept his head in the game when many would be losing it, and that gives Gustafson and his No. 24 team hope that few teams in their position would have with eight races before the playoff field is set.

"It's allowed us to stay more of a cohesive work unit instead of worrying about some of the ramifications of some of the situations," Gustafson said as he prepared for Sunday's race. "Jeff, the way he is committed to the team, you don't focus on that. You focus on how to improve.

"So it does give you hope. It allows you to focus on getting to where you need to be."

If Gordon and Gustafson need more motivation, they need not look further than last year's wild-card race. Brad Keselowski was 21st coming into New Hampshire, 23rd leaving after finishing 35th, then won at Pocono and Bristol to easily make the 10-race playoff.

In 2009, Brian Vickers was 17th after 18 races and made it.

So it can be done. And you'd have to consider Gordon's chances better than most with a string of tracks -- New Hampshire, Indianapolis, Pocono and Watkins Glen -- coming up where he has a record that is nearly unmatched.

Start with New Hampshire. Gordon has three wins at this one-mile track and an average finish of 10.8, third among active drivers.

The numbers get better at Indianapolis, where Gordon has a series-best four wins and trails only Tony Stewart in average finish at 9.1. Had last year's race gone a few laps longer, he likely would have run down Paul Menard for the victory.

Gordon also is the active wins leader at Pocono with five and second in active wins at Watkins Glen with four.

One could almost argue that Gordon should be favored for a wild-card spot above Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne, each already with a win.

"Most people look at us while we're in 17th in the points [with] no wins as 'these guys don't have a shot,'" said Gordon, third in laps led this year with 421. "But we feel like we've run good enough to do it and are continuing to run good. And this is a good stretch of races for us to pull it off."

New Hampshire is critical; not quite do-or-die, but close. Gordon can't let any more opportunities as good as this one get away or time could run out. You can hear the sense of urgency in Gustafson's voice.

"All of them are big, but this is one of those tracks we feel we can get a win at," he said.

Gustafson has learned a lot from Gordon the past two seasons. He's seen why Gordon has amassed Hall of Fame numbers -- 85 wins and four titles -- particularly this season, which has been the worst of Gordon's career from a points standpoint.

"He's as high in demand as anybody in the garage with the media and the fans, and he never shies away from any of it," Gustafson said. "He never makes any excuses. He's a very strong individual.

"He's a special person, and when you see him do that …"

There's hope.

Few in the garage are counting Gordon out of the wild-card battle, or even the championship battle. You can see him doing what Stewart did a year ago, going from a nonfactor at this point in the season to champion with five wins in the Chase.

"I sit back and admire the way he carries himself on and off the track, and the way he leads his team and the way he leads all of us at Hendrick Motorsports," five-time champion Jimmie Johnson said of his teammate. "The position he's been in has been tough. He's handled it really, really well.

"I look at him and feel like it's probably weighing on him, but it would be much more visible on my face than it is on his."

Says Logano, who if the season ended today would have one of the two wild-card spots with Busch, "The 24 is somebody you would figure would get a win between now and the Chase. He will be right up there."

Keselowski agrees.

"On any given weekend, you've got a shot at winning, especially when you've got a car like [Gordon] does and a team like he does at Hendrick Motorsports," he said. "I'm not sure what his mentality is, but I know I wouldn't give up."

Gordon's mentality is why Gustafson and his crew haven't given up, why that team has to be considered a wild-card threat.

"It's a big deal," Gustafson said. "When you sit there it's like, 'Yeah, OK, it's what he's supposed to do.' But when you go through it, it's a different story. It takes a lot of discipline.

"He's definitely shown that above and beyond. I believe we can make it. If we do make it, the way he's handled it will be a huge difference."