SANTA ANA, CALIF. On a sun-baked ribbon of asphalt, a stone's throw away from champagne caves and grape vines, Jeff Gordon's run toward the Chase for the Championship got hopelessly stuck in third gear.
Battling for fourth after leading the first 32 laps a year ago at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, the shift linkage on his transmission - one which hadn't missed a beat in hundreds of miles of testing - inexplicably jammed.
Gordon still doesn't know what exactly caused that mysterious glitch that ended any chance he had at winning his fifth race at this picturesque, 1.99-mile road course, which snakes through the wine country.
But it was a devastating blow for the four-time Cup series champion, considering he was on the move and headed toward the front when his car broke down. He finished 33rd, earning 69 points.
With the way he was driving that afternoon, he looked like he would finish in the top five. The faulty gearbox cost him at least 86 points. He would miss making the Chase by 83 points.
"I can tell you I have thought about that race a lot," Gordon said. "And, oh yes, I know it played a huge role in why we weren't running for a championship last year."
This year he is not leaving anything to chance in Sonoma. On Sunday, he said he is going to use the same kind of transmission during the Dodge/Save Mart 350 that performed flawless last August on the sprawling, 11-turn road course in Watkins Glen, N.Y.
And Sunday's race might end up playing a crucial role once again in whether Gordon makes NASCAR's 10-race playoff this year. After finishing eighth in the 3M Performance 400 last Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, Gordon is in 11th place in the driver standings heading into the 110-lap race in Sonoma.
That means Gordon currently is on the outside looking in. Only the top 10 drivers likely will make it into the Chase this season. Greg Biffle jumped up two places in the driver standings Sunday and moved into 10th place. The Roush Racing driver is 488 points behind first-place Jimmie Johnson. Gordon is 11 points behind Biffle with 11 races remaining before the Chase begins.
And, remember, the Chase is only open to the drivers who are in the top10 in the standings or within 400 points of the leader after 26 races.
"All you can do is fight hard every weekend and try to get the most out of your racecar and your team, and if you do your job and it's meant to happen, it will," Gordon said. "I just don't want to be in the Chase, though, I want to be there because we are a threat to win the championship."
Infineon Raceway is the type of track on which Gordon knows he can make up for lost time. He has was won eight races on road courses, and no other driver in Cup series history has done better.
"This is one of the races that I always look forward to during the season," Gordon said.
"I feel like we have gained some things over last year, and we have made our road course program even better than it has been in the past."