With two races to go, Gordon throws conservative approach out window

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Jeff Gordon must long for the good old days.

Under the old points system, Gordon would have celebrated Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway. His seventh-place finish would have clinched the 2007 Nextel Cup championship.

That's not the real world these days in NASCAR. Gordon left TMS feeling like the title is slipping away from him with only two races to go.

He watched teammate Jimmie Johnson pull off a gutsy victory for his third consecutive win, dropping Gordon from a nine-point lead to a 30-point deficit.

"It was a pretty disappointing day," Gordon said. "We're not getting close enough. We haven't stepped up where we need to."

If Gordon is going to step, this weekend is the place to do it. The advantage at Phoenix goes to Gordon.

He won on the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway oval in April for his first at victory at the track, but it's a place where he always has raced well.

His average finish at Phoenix is 8.2, second-best for Gordon among all the Cup tracks.

"Phoenix is a good place for us," Gordon said. "We'll go there, fight hard and try to get those points back. I think we can beat [Johnson's team] there. I think we have the car to do it. We've just got to find the right setup that makes me comfortable."

Johnson is winless at Phoenix, but he also has raced well there in his career.

His average finish at PIR (7.2) is one better than Gordon's. Johnson finished fourth at Phoenix in April.

But Gordon has one other advantage. Phoenix is the last Car of Tomorrow race this season. Gordon has been exceptional in the COT, with an average finish of 5.2.

He has three wins and has finished fourth or better in eight of 15 COT events, including four of the past five. Only once has Gordon finished lower than 11th in a COT race.

Johnson has four COT victories, but his average finish is 7.3. He has finished 14th or worse in five COT races.

Clearly, the COT race at Phoenix is the place where Gordon needs to regain those 30 points to get back in front of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

That margin is easy to overcome. The difference between third place and 10th place, assuming neither driver leads a lap, is 31 points. If a driver wins and leads the most laps, he's guaranteed to finish at least 30 points ahead of the fourth-place finisher.

"Thirty isn't much," Gordon said of the deficit. "But the 48 is spanking us. Those guys have done an excellent job of coming from behind. They've won three in a row and are on a roll. We have to answer back."

Gordon has finished in the top 10 in 11 of the past 12 Phoenix races. He has posted top-5s eight times at PIR. But he probably needs to win this one, because Johnson has finished seventh or better in the past four Phoenix events.

"Nobody is trying to protect points now," Gordon said. "We have to race for the win, but you have to be smart at the same time. We've got to put some pressure back on them and outperform them at Phoenix."

This event also has special meaning to Gordon outside of racing. It was the week of this race last year when he married Ingrid Vandebosch in a private ceremony in Mexico.

But the 48 is spanking us. Those guys have done an excellent job of coming from behind. They've won three in a row and are on a roll. We have to answer back.

-- Jeff Gordon

"I'm going to celebrate my anniversary and my wife's birthday," Gordon said.

Ingrid's 38th birthday is Thursday, so the couple will celebrate in Phoenix with baby daughter Ella Sofia. Maybe it's a good omen.

"All we can do now is go to Phoenix and race our best," Gordon said. "We hope we can turn it around and get some momentum back on our side."

Gordon had a 68-point lead over Johnson after winning at Lowe's Motor Speedway on Oct. 13. But three victories by Johnson have enabled him to regain the No. 1 spot in the standings.

And it isn't like Gordon raced poorly in those three events. He finished third at Martinsville and seventh at Atlanta and Texas.

Usually that's good enough to stay in front, but not when the man pursuing you goes to Victory Lane all three times. It's the first time this season any driver has posted three consecutive victories.

Rick Hendrick is proud of both his drivers, but he said Gordon needs to show his toughness if he's going to catch Johnson.

"I've been around Jeff a lot of years," Hendrick said. "I've heard him on the [team] radio and I know he can be awfully aggressive. Jeff knows he can't win this thing being conservative. That's a dead issue now."

Gordon has to go all out to win, and Phoenix is a good place for him to step up and make it happen.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.