Everything was going so smoothly for Jeff Gordon.
Coming off a second-place finish at Darlington early in May, the four-time NASCAR champion was second in the season points standings, trailing only Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, and seemingly cruising toward a spot in the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship.
Fast forward five races and Gordon is floundering. After finishing 30th or worse in four of those events, Gordon heads into today's Dodge/Save Mart 350 in Sonoma, Calif., in 12th place, 406 points behind Johnson.
Only the top 10 drivers in the standings and those within 400 points of the leader after the first 26 races are eligible to run for the title over the final 10 races of the season.
That gives Gordon 11 races to get things back in order, and he couldn't be happier that the first of those events is on Infineon Raceway's 1.99-mile, 12-turn road course, where he has had considerable success.
"Yeah, this is definitely a place we enjoy coming to, no matter if we're coming off a win or a horrible day like we had at Michigan," said Gordon, who had tire problems last Sunday at Michigan and wound up 32nd.
"You know, I hate that we've come in here with that kind of pressure, but we do need to get some things turned around and this is a track where we can get some things turned around."
At the picturesque wine country track -- about 15 miles from his home town of Vallejo -- Gordon has four victories in his last seven starts, including a win from the pole last year. In all, he has seven top fives and eight top 10s here.
There's rarely much doubt who is the favorite to win when the Cup drivers arrive at Infineon each year for one of only two road course races on the schedule.
"Jeff Gordon is a whale of a race car driver, but everybody in the garage knows that car is incredible," said Mark Martin, who will start third today, right behind Gordon and Johnson. "It drives the teams crazy, but it is what it is."
Gordon agrees that his No. 24 Chevrolet is a great road racing car, but he is taking nothing for granted.
"We're not guaranteed a win or a good finish at Sonoma, but we know we're capable of it," he said.
Gordon pointed out that one small mistake can spoil your day on a road circuit as fast and challenging as Infineon.
"The biggest challenge is the downshifting," he said. "You are driving hard into the corners and braking very deep, all while downshifting the car to get it slowed down and into the proper gear.
"You hear a lot of drivers talk about wheel-hopping in this situation. It's easy to get the rear tires bouncing, and that can get the car out of control. But, that's what's fun about racing here: braking; downshifting; taking the car left and right through the corners; feeling the car swing both ways; driving up over the curbs; and the elevation changes."
* BUSCH SERIES: Pole-sitter Johnny Sauter overcame a black flag and led the final 80 laps for his third career Busch Series victory, winning the rain-shortened SBC 250 at the Milwaukee Mile in West Allis, Wis.
The race was shortened from 250 to 200 miles after a storm dumped heavy rain on the track.
Sauter, from Necedah, Wis., easily had the fastest car. He led 162 of the 200 laps. Martin Truex Jr. was second, and Paul Menard finished third. J.J. Yeley was fourth and David Stremme fifth as 10 cars were on the lead lap when the race was stopped.
* CHAMP CAR: For the second straight year, Paul Tracy will start from the pole in the Grand Prix of Cleveland today.
In this race, though, the inside of Row 1 isn't always the place to be.
Tracy won the pole after completing the course in 57.419 seconds -- and with it won a chance to be the first car into the course's infamous Turn 1, a traditional spot for mishaps and chaos.