Can excellent speed overcome Jeff Gordon’s run of bad luck?

Jeff Gordon drives the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma on June 22, 2012 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

SONOMA, Calif. — Perhaps Jeff Gordon’s streak of extraordinarily bad luck would be more palatable if the four-time champion hadn’t shown potential race-winning speed on more than one occasion this season.

Gordon is 20th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings, with an uncharacteristically meager four top 10s in 15 races this year. It’s not that Gordon has run poorly. It’s simply that circumstances have conspired to turn possible strong finishes into poor ones.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s victory last Sunday at Michigan leaves Gordon as the only one of four Hendrick Motorsports drivers without a win this season.

“It’s easier when it’s just all down,” Gordon said. “When there’s no ups and downs, you don’t have any expectations. I feel like it’s really been a test for us. It has not been easy. When you have high expectations on yourself, and your teammates are winning and doing well, and when you’re running so good (without the results to show for it), it makes it even more frustrating.”

Gordon again showed excellent speed Saturday at Sonoma. In the first morning practice session, he busted off a lap at 94.312 mph, more than a full mile-per-hour faster than polesitter Marcos Ambrose was able to achieve.

There’s no greater rallying cry for a team than a strong performance, but as Gordon pointed  out, he’s had to play a much more active role in bolstering the morale of his No. 24 crew this year.

“This year, I’ve had to do it more on a personal level, one on one and in the team meetings, really kind of stepping out there and putting some words out there that I feel like could be key to keeping us together and getting us through those tough times,” Gordon said.

SHORT STROKES

Gordon paced both practice sessions on Saturday, but he wasn’t the only driver who stood out. AJ Allmendinger made significant gains from his 17th-place qualifying effort, posting the third-fastest speed in the first practice and fifth fastest in the second. . . . Strategy at road courses is often counterintuitive. At ovals, it’s customary for the pole-winning crew chief to select the No. 1 pit stall, closest to the exit from pit road. At 1.99-mile Sonoma, where a driver can pit without losing a lap, Todd Parrott, Ambrose’s crew chief, picked stall No. 11, right before the start/finish line. There’s a gap in front of that box, leaving ample room for a team to push-start a car that’s out of fuel without running through another team’s stall. A car parked in stall No. 1 can’t afford to run out of fuel, because the proximity of that stall to the racing surface doesn’t allow room for pushing.

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