NASCAR coca-cola 600: Gordon overdue?

Driver seeks to end drought in Carolina

? Huddled in the back of the No. 24 hauler, the braintrust of Jeff Gordon’s race team poured over pages and pages of notes Saturday looking for directions to victory lane.

It’s been 19 races since Gordon last made his way to the winner’s circle, the longest drought the four-time Winston Cup champion has experienced since he needed 42 starts to win his first ever Winston Cup event.

But no one is panicking, not with today’s race being run at Lowe’s Motor Speedway a track where Gordon leads all active drivers with four victories. He starts 16th in the Coca-Cola 600.

“A win is like a thief in the night, you never know when it’s coming,” crew chief Robbie Loomis said Saturday, surrounded by notebooks and loose paper filled with information on how to make the Chevrolet better.

“You can do everything possible to make the car just right and the driver can walk through the door feeling bulletproof and you just know it’s going to be your day. We feel like that day is coming.”

The Coca-Cola 600 would be a logical event for Gordon to end his streak. He’s won the longest race of the NASCAR season three times before, proving he’s a master of adjusting to the track conditions that change over the day-into-night race.

Plus, he’s had considerable success at the suburban Charlotte track. Aside from the four Cup races, he’s visited victory lane three times during The Winston, won a qualifying race for the all-star event and won two Busch series races for a total of 10 wins on the track.

“I think if there’s anyplace we can find our way to victory lane it would certainly be here,” said Gordon, who shaved off the goatee he debuted last week at The Winston. “Charlotte has been a great place for us, and the 600 has been a good race for us.”

He’ll have to battle Jimmie Johnson, his protege and teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, who starts from the pole today.

Johnson will lead a contingent of young drivers into the race, including rookie Ryan Newman, who earned his first victory last week in The Winston and starts fourth.

But they won’t overshadow the veterans this week, especially Ricky Rudd, who will break Terry Labonte’s Iron Man streak when he takes the green flag on his 656th consecutive start.

“This record is a tremendous honor, especially to be mentioned with Richard Petty and Terry Labonte in the same breath,” Rudd said. “It’s a big honor for me to be mentioned like that, so, I think it just says that determination is hopefully something we’ll be known for one day when we step aside.”

Also in the field is Robby Gordon, who will make his second attempt at running both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.

Gordon practiced his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet on Saturday, then jetted off to Indy for final preparations for the 500.

He’ll be on a tight schedule to get back to North Carolina for the 600, which had its starting time moved up this year to 5:30 p.m.

Mike Wallace will be on standby here in case Robby Gordon, who starts 11th at Indy at 12th at Charlotte, doesn’t get back in time.

“We can win one of these,” Gordon said. “The most important thing for me is to keep my cool for 90 percent of both races and position myself to be there.

“We’re going to Indy for one reason to win the race and drink the milk afterward. Then, unlike the other guys, I’ll jump into a helicopter and head for Charlotte and the start of the Coca-Cola 600.”

Jeff Gordon, meanwhile, will be watching the Indy 500 as he prepares himself for his own race. He grew up in Indiana, but strayed from his open-wheel roots to pursue a career in NASCAR with stock cars.

So he’s never had a shot at the Indy 500 and doesn’t think he’d ever attempt a double duty and the 1,100 miles of racing in one day.

“Sure I’d love to drink the milk in Indy, but I’d much rather drink a Pepsi at the Coca-Cola 600,” said Gordon, who is sponsored by Pepsi.

To do so, Loomis and the rest of the No. 24 crew must find a way to lift their confidence to the level it was at when they won the Winston Cup title last season. Surprisingly, spirits are still high on the team despite the winless streak.

“We still feel real good, we aren’t frustrated and our confidence is good, we just need a little luck,” Loomis said.

“The one thing about Jeff is he not only handles winning better than anyone else, but he handles losing better than anyone else. Still, he’s ready to start winning again.”

Of course, with a chance at winning a $1 million bonus and improving his position in the points standings, Tony Stewart decided one race was enough for him.

Stewart chose not to compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 today, a double-duty event he has done twice before.

Instead, he’ll focus only on his NASCAR job, avoiding all the hassles that go with “double duty.”