Jeff Green goes into every NASCAR Nextel Cup race these days hoping for the best, but knowing a victory would be a virtual miracle.
Driving for Petty Enterprises since the last eight races of 2003, Green is part of an ongoing rebuilding effort at one of NASCAR's oldest and most revered franchises. Unfortunately, a return to the success the team enjoyed for so many years is still somewhere out on the horizon for the organization founded by the late Lee Petty and carried on by his son, Richard, and Richard's son, Kyle.
Going into today's race at Chicagoland Speedway, Kyle is 30th in the season points, with his eighth-place finish at Bristol the team's only top-10 finish in 2005. Green is 33rd in the points and has finished as high as 11th only once -- in May at Charlotte.
A year ago, Green had one top-10 finish and was 30th in the points. But he insists there has been real improvement -- and the fact that he failed to complete 11 races last year and has been running at the end of 16 of 17 so far in 2005 may be proof of that.
"We can't give up, and our motor package with Evernham Motors, I think, has turned our team definitely in the right direction," Green said. "We go to the racetrack without worrying about that anymore. So, we've got to figure our aerodynamics out and our down force.
"Our sport has changed so much body-wise and what you do with the springs and the shocks. And even two years ago, it's unbelievable. And we have to figure that out."
Green said the performance of the Petty team's Dodges is "as good as anybody's" at times. "But we just can't ever finish out a day for some reason. We can't keep up with the racetrack."
Green has known success, winning the 2000 Busch Series championship. That makes it even more difficult to take the constant struggle just to be competitive.
"I think if I were 20 years younger, it'd be tough," Green, 42, said. "I don't know if I could do it or not. . . . Our sport, unfortunately, has a lot more downs than it has ups, and you just try to balance that if you can.
"It's still very tough at times to know that you're capable of winning races and doing the things that you've done in the past. When you have setbacks, it's pretty tough to go throughout that day to finish that race."
Green pointed to the race last month at Michigan, where he thought he had a top-10 car but broke a wheel rim on pit road and wound up 38th.
"I've never done that before," he said. "Things like that are really disappointing, but you've got to keep your head up and look forward to next week and, hopefully, you can turn that corner.
"It seems like, in the Busch Series, when I did turn that corner a lot of things went right. Yeah, we can say we had a lot of bad luck, but I think if we run better we can make a lot of our luck, and that would make a better day for us. . . . What drives me as a driver is just working hard to try to conquer it and hopefully we can, one of these days."
Tony Stewart, winner of the last two Cup races, likes to joke about his stocky build.
Asked after his victory two weeks ago on the road course in Sonoma, Calif., if he considers himself an athlete, Stewart replied: "With a gut like this, do you consider me an athlete?"
Asked what he does to stay in shape, Stewart joked: "Channel up. Channel down."
But pressed on the issue, Stewart acknowledged he does indeed consider race drivers athletes.
"Do we run all day long? No," Stewart said. "Do we start on a three-point stance and run into each other when the ball snaps? No. . . . But, put those guys in a 130-140 degree car and pulling the G's we pull all day. It's a different fitness."
"I believe we're athletes. But it's just a different form. There's just different conditioning we have to get used to, to do what we do. . . . You take some of these guys that are the best athletes in the world and put them in a 140 degree car, and make them go around the race track for 20 laps and they'll be tired because they're not used to it. Just like we'd be tired to do their sport."
Going into Chicago, the 18th race of the Cup season, there are 13 drivers eligible for the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship, which will include the top 10 and any other drivers within 400 points of the leader.
There are still nine races before the field is set for the 10-race Chase, and at least eight more drivers hope to make a run at a spot in the second year of the NASCAR playoff.
Kevin Harvick is the closest right now. He is currently 14th, 432 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson. Jeff Burton is next, 487 points behind the leader, with DEI teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip following at 506 and 508 points behind.
Also still in the running are Joe Nemechek, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne, all within 618 points of Johnson and within 218 of a place in the Chase.
"That's a lot of points but, if you get things going in the right direction, you can make up a lot of points in a hurry," said Kahne, who missed out on the Chase last year by a mere 44 points.
Of course, Johnson, who holds a 73-point lead over Greg Biffle at the top of the standings, would like to see as few competitors for the championship as possible.
"Well, I hope that only 10 are in it," Johnson said. "I think if Biffle and I stay up there right now leading the points, we need to really work hard to keep it a 10-car race for the championship."
Johnson is the only driver that has ranked in the top 10 in Cup points after every race in 2005. He has been among the top-10 drivers since Atlanta in March 2004, 50 straight races, the longest current streak.