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Sonoma suddenly looking critical to a Jeff Gordon resurgence

Jeff Gordon isn't having a terrible season. It just looks terrible in comparison to one year ago.

At this point in 2007, Gordon had four victories and led the Sprint Cup standings by 264 points. Now he's ninth in the standings, 337 points behind leader Kyle Busch. And Gordon has yet to win a race.

It doesn't have the look of a championship year, but Gordon can swing the momentum his way in the California wine country this weekend.

If Gordon hopes to make a serious run at that elusive fifth title this season, the Sonoma road course is the place where the upswing has to start.

"Yeah, it's important," Gordon said at Michigan over the weekend. "We know our road course program has always kind of bailed us out when we needed it most in the past. Not saying we need to be bailed out right now, but we definitely could use some bonus points going into the Chase and could use a win."

Infineon Raceway is Gordon's house. He's the career leader with five victories on the 12-turn course, including two wins in the past four Sonoma races. He set the qualifying record in 2005.

This is Gordon's comfort zone. He was born about 20 miles away in Vallejo. Gordon spent his boyhood years in Northern California before his family moved to Indiana to advance Gordon's racing career when he was a teenager.

Gordon asked his wife, Ingrid, to marry him the week of the 2006 Sonoma race before he won the event. Their daughter, Ella, was born four days before the Sonoma race last year.

So many good things have happened for Gordon around this event, but last year's Infineon weekend was a bit of a downer.

Gordon and Jimmie Johnson were forced to start in the back after NASCAR officials found fender modifications on the two Hendrick Motorsports cars in the initial inspection at Sonoma.

Both drivers were docked 100 points and their crew chiefs were suspended for six races, not that it hurt either team in the long run.

But starting in the back at Sonoma makes winning almost impossible. Gordon still finished seventh and Johnson was 17th. Juan Pablo Montoya earned his first Cup victory.

Now Gordon needs to beat Montoya and the other road course standouts to jump-start his season.

"It's not going to be easy," Gordon said. "Anybody can win the race. To me, the 20 car [Tony Stewart] was the best on the road courses last year, Sonoma as well as Watkins Glen.

"But Juan Pablo is really fast on the road courses as well. There are a lot more competitive drivers on the road courses than there used to be, so we don't go out there feeling like we have the edge we used to have."

That could sum up how Gordon feels about the 2008 season compared to last year. The Hendrick boys were way ahead of the other Cup teams with the new car last season, but Gordon feels a few teams caught up and passed them entering 2008.

"While we were busy trying to win a championship, other teams were developing their COT programs and we got a little behind," Gordon said.

Catch-up time is now or never. If Gordon wins at Sonoma, his championship prospects will look a little brighter for the second half of the season.

A strong showing for Kentucky
Buy it and they will come. That's how it looked Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway when a record crowd of 73,195 attended the Nationwide race at the 1.5-mile oval.

Bruton Smith

Smith

Bruton Smith was on hand to gaze glowingly at his new acquisition, continuing to say he's hopeful of having a Cup race at Kentucky in 2009. NASCAR officials say it's not happening.

Smith said the lawsuit the speedway's sellers have against NASCAR needs to go away to change NASCAR's feeling about Kentucky. But Jerry Carroll, head of the group that's selling the track to Smith, said the group has no intention of dropping the suit.

The surprising part of this is that Smith would agree to buy the speedway without a guarantee from Carroll that he would end the litigation with NASCAR.

Smith also hinted he might move a Cup date to Kentucky from one of his Speedway Motorsports Inc. tracks, which can't be comforting news to New Hampshire.

It's unlikely Smith would attempt a swap for 2009, but let's assume he does. What would NASCAR do?

NASCAR president Mike Helton has said in the past that all Smith had to do to get a second Cup date for Las Vegas was to move a race from another SMI track.

So what happens if Smith says next week or next month that he's moving an SMI race to Kentucky?

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