Martinsville a must-win situation for Jeff Gordon

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Jeff Gordon’s drive toward a fifth Sprint Cup championship has hit some bumps in the road over the last couple of weeks.

Two weekends ago at Charlotte, Gordon finished a respectable seventh after starting from the pole. Unfortunately for him, all four of his main rivals in the Chase for the Sprint Cup – Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick – finished better than he did.

Then last Sunday at Talladega, Gordon finished 14th but had Busch, Harvick and Johnson beat him to the stripe (Kenseth finished 20th and lost his points lead to Johnson).

He’s been able to avoid calamity this post-season and that’s made him one of the legitimate contenders still standing with four races to go. But he has to overcome a sizable, 34-point gap to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson.

With that in mind, Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway shapes up as a must-win situation for Gordon, who has not taken a checkered flag this season. But he certainly knows how to emerge victorious at the Virginia short track, with seven wins there in his Sprint Cup career.

Granted, he hasn’t won at Martinsville since 2005. But even so, he’s still been an almost constant presence at the front with 12 Top-5s and 13 Top-10s in his last 15 races there. He has been every bit a force as Johnson, himself an eight-time M’Ville winner (tops among all active Cup drivers).

Naturally, that body of work has him and his No. 24 team feeling confident.

“We come in here feeling really good about this race track and our race team,” Gordon said today before qualifying ninth for Sunday’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 powered by Kroger.

“We have had a lot of positive things that have happened to us over the last six weeks. Then to come with a good feeling about where we are at as a race team and our race cars and come into one of my favorite race tracks – a track that we have had good results at, not only in the past, but this year – it definitely is something that we come into very excited about.”

But with time running out and the competition stiff as ever, Gordon can’t settle for a Top-10. Heck, a Top-5 might not be enough unless the ones he’s chasing for the title run into trouble.

To keep his championship hopes alive, he has to get the No. 24 to P1 after 500 laps on Sunday.

Hartley to make F1 debut from back of grid after penalty

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Brendon Hartley’s hopes of a points finish on his Formula 1 debut took a hit on Friday after the FIA confirmed the Toro Rosso driver will start the United States Grand Prix from the back of the grid due to an engine penalty.

Porsche factory driver and 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Hartley was drafted in by Toro Rosso as a surprise replacement for Pierre Gasly in Austin, with the Frenchman tied up with Super Formula duties at Suzuka this weekend.

Hartley took to the track in an official grand prix session for the first time on Friday in Austin, marking his first run-out in an F1 car since a test with Mercedes in 20120.

However, FIA technical delegate Jo Bauer confirmed in his pre-race report that changes had been made to the power unit on Hartley’s Toro Rosso car since the last race in Japan, triggering a grid penalty.

Toro Rosso elected to take a new internal combustion engine, MGU-H, energy store and control electronics on Hartley’s Renault power unit, totaling a 25-place grid drop that will be applied after qualifying. Confirmation of the penalty is set to follow later today.

The penalty comes as a setback for Hartley, but was necessary as Toro Rosso found itself short on engine elements to get to the end of the season.

Hartley is not the only driver to have a penalty confirmed, with Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg and McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne also taking new engine elements, also confirmed in Bauer’s report.

A new ICE, turbocharger and MGU-H for Hulkenberg will see him drop 20 places on the grid, while an eighth ICE of the year for Vandoorne will trigger a five-place drop.