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.

F1 2017 driver review: Kimi Raikkonen

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Kimi Raikkonen

Team: Scuderia Ferrari
Car No.: 7
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 7
Best Finish: P2 (Monaco, Hungary)
Pole Positions: 1
Fastest Laps: 2
Points: 205
Laps Led: 40
Championship Position: 4th

While this may have statistically been Kimi Raikkonen’s best campaign since his first year back in F1 in 2012, there is a good case for it being one of his most disappointing to date.

Raikkonen’s continued role at Ferrari has been questioned on a number of occasions, but the Finn looked capable of answering his critics heading into 2017 after impressing through pre-season testing as he appeared to get to grips well with the new-style cars.

But we soon grew accustomed to the same old story: flashes of potential, but otherwise an underwhelming, unsatisfactory campaign that saw Raikkonen be dwarfed by his teammate, Sebastian Vettel.

Raikkonen’s charge to his first pole position for over eight years in Monaco gave hope of a popular win, only for Ferrari to play its strategy in favor of title contender Vettel – why wouldn’t the team do so? – to leave him a disgruntled second.

While Vettel was able to impress at the majority of circuits, Raikkonen only looked strong at tracks that were unquestionably ‘Ferrari’ tracks, such as Hungary and Brazil. Like Vettel, Raikkonen should have racked up a good haul of points in Singapore, only for the start-line crash to sideline both Ferraris before they even reached Turn 1.

Again there is the question of ‘what could have been?’ in Malaysia had it not been for the spark plug issue on the grid, yet in Japan, Raikkonen was nowhere, finishing behind the Mercedes and Red Bulls.

Finishing just five points clear of Daniel Ricciardo despite having a much faster car for the best part of the season and the Red Bull driver’s own reliability issues sums up the disappointment of Raikkonen’s campaign.

He should have been an ally for Vettel in the title race by nicking points of Lewis Hamilton, much as Valtteri Bottas was doing for his Mercedes teammate. Instead, Raikkonen seemed to be tagging along for the best part of this season.

Season High: Pole in Monaco, his first since the 2008 French Grand Prix.

Season Low: Finishing a distant P4 at Spa – a circuit he made his own in the 2000s.