If there is one thing that Jeff Gordon knows, it's that he's running out of time to make certain he's part of the 2011 Chase.
So while he was pleased with his fourth-place finish in Sunday's STP 400 at Kansas Speedway, and he realizes the value of the one win he already owns this season, he's hardly satisfied. He is, on the other hand, no doubt thankful for the wild-card element that was added to the Chase qualifying format this season.
Under that format, the top 10 drivers in points qualify for the Chase and the final two Chase spots go to the two drivers with the most victories who are inside the top 20 in the points standings. In the past, the 12 Chase qualifiers were determined strictly on points -- which last year left multiple winner Jamie McMurray on the outside looking in when it came to Chase time.
Gordon does not want to be that guy this year.
"I am certainly not comfortable. It's not a good place to be," Gordon said even before Sunday's uplifting result was in the books. "I guess I look at it a little bit different. It's not just about being in the top 10 in points, it's about being a threat for the championship. And, yes, you have to be in the top 10 or 12 in order to do that and you can improve your program by the time the Chase comes around and be a threat for the championship.
"So that's why we can't give up. We have to work hard to improve all the time. But, I think, from a points standpoint right now what we have to focus on is winning races because, if we can win another one or two races, to me that locks us in. We understand that not only locks us in, but it also gives us momentum to be in a position to actually be a threat for the championship."
If there was one fact underscored by Brad Keselowski's victory in Sunday's race at Kansas, it was that Gordon is not alone and that the wild-card format is having its intended impact. It is generating interest from the fans and putting pressure on the competitors. The drivers think about it all the time.
Keselowski, for instance, now has the same number of wins on the board as not only Gordon but also Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson -- who sit one-two in the points standings. And he has one more than Dale Earnhardt Jr., who sits in third.
Other drivers who have yet to score a victory this season but sit in rather lofty but potentially precarious point positions include Kurt Busch (sixth), Tony Stewart (eighth), Clint Bowyer (ninth), Ryan Newman (10th), Denny Hamlin (11th) and Greg Biffle (12th). Meanwhile, Keselowski joins Regan Smith and rookie Trevor Bayne on the growing list of surprise winners -- although he's less of a surprise than either of the other two and likely has more of the goods necessary to make a run at the Chase, if not necessarily in it as Gordon so desperately desires.
Keselowski is 21st in points, only seven behind Paul Menard in 20th. He needs to get inside the top 20 to have Sunday's race victory take on real meaning in terms of qualifying for the Chase. Now that, along with pursuing additional trips to Victory Lane, becomes the priority over the last 13 races leading up to the 10-race Chase.
"It's certainly doable," Keselowski said after Sunday's events.
Smith, on the other hand, is 29th in points and is looking more and more like he will not be able to get inside the top 20 to make his win in the Showtime Southern 500 count for something in the hunt for a Chase berth. Bayne is not eligible for the Chase because he chose to race for a championship in the Nationwide Series instead of the Cup Series.
Then there are guys like Biffle -- solidly inside the top 20 but just on the edge of the top 10 and still winless. They are starting to feel the pressure from all sides to make it into the Chase, one way or the other.
"Well, we have certainly been trying to win lately and all season. It is hard to sleep at night when you are right there on the verge of the points," said Biffle, who finished 10th at Kansas and was leading the Coca-Cola 600 in the closing laps a week earlier -- only to have to pit for a splash of gas. "You have to start having solid top-fives every week. If you're having solid top-fives every week, then forget about it. We aren't there yet.
"We have to get top-fives to get up in there and get a little cushion. The points are really tight. A couple of wins would take the pressure off."
Wild times ahead?
After Sunday's strong run, Gordon sits 13th in points -- 18 behind Newman in 10th. But he has that one win in his pocket, scored in the second race of the season at Phoenix. He's hoping it goes a long, long way, but knows to be certain that a second win is required.
"We definitely have work to do," Gordon said. "I feel like we can get that momentum that we need to get those wins, as well as getting ourselves solidly in the top 12."
One of the drivers Gordon needs to jump over in points is Biffle. Or either of them could make the other flinch first by posting a victory. That's what makes this wild-card element so much fun. It adds a level of interest and excitement to the Chase qualifying scenario that is ever-changing and exciting to follow.
Meanwhile, guys such as Kevin Harvick (three wins), Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth (two wins apiece) theoretically are gaining a leg up on all the competition by having the early luxury of knowing they're almost certainly already qualified for the postseason. Gil Martin, Harvick's crew chief, has said that enables the No. 29 Chevrolet team to experiment at tracks they know they'll be coming back to during the Chase, giving them opportunities to take chances others can't -- or at least won't -- and storing the knowledge for later use.
"We will just keep trying to do what we can," Biffle said. "When it comes down to it I think that both the wild-card guys are going to have wins. They will at least have one win. I feel, I really kind of do, that they will both have wins. Maybe one of those guys might have two. We will see."
Gordon again stressed that he wants to win again not only to virtually secure his spot in the Chase, but to prove to himself and his team, as well as others, that the No. 24 Chevy team is ready to truly challenge for what would be Gordon's fifth championship.
"We've gotten ourselves behind and that is obvious," said Gordon, who won his fourth title in 2001 but has finished third or higher in the final standings three times since then. "It shows [with] where we are in the points. We've been inconsistent and we haven't performed the way we need to. So, to me, it is not just about being in the top 12. It is about being in the top 12 and being a real threat for the championship."
Sunday's race may have moved him a step closer. But he knows he's not there yet, and that this wild-card scenario could get a whole lot wilder before it's finally settled.