The pressure is on Jeff Gordon, and there might be no better place for him to deal with it than Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Gordon heads into today's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard as the defending champion and the only four-time winner in the 11 years NASCAR has visited the Mecca of American auto racing.
He's also in the midst of the worst stretch of his illustrious career.
Gordon, who turned 34 Thursday, won three of the first nine races this season and appeared to be solidly in the hunt for a fifth series championship. He finished second at Darlington on May 7 in the 10th race of the season and was second in the Nextel Cup standings, trailing Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson by just 127 points.
In the 10 races since, Gordon's best finish is seventh and seven other results have been 25th or worse. That leaves the frustrated Gordon 15th in the standings, 541 points behind Johnson, who still leads the way.
To even have a shot at winning another title, Gordon is going to have to qualify for the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup championship. Only the top 10 drivers and any others within 400 points of the leader after the 26th race, Sept. 10 in Richmond, will be eligible to compete for the title.
To do that, Gordon is going to have to make some serious gains in just six races.
"Everywhere we've tested this year, we've run well," said Gordon, who recently tested on Indy's 21/2-mile oval. "Right now, we're looking at a stretch of races where we have to perform well to get into the top 10, and Indianapolis is one of those races."
Along with the four wins, Gordon tops the Brickyard statistics in poles (three), top-fives (seven) and laps led (433). He has finished sixth or better in nine of the 11 Indy races.
Junior Slumping Too
Like Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. badly needs a strong run today.
After appearing to right his season with consecutive finishes of third, first and ninth, Earnhardt ran into a 32nd-place finish two weeks ago in Pocono, coming away 14th in the standings. He's 537 points behind Johnson and 110 out of 10th place.
An Earnhardt win at Indy would match the victory his late father got there in 1995 -- the second year NASCAR raced there.
"It's hard to even imagine what it'd be like," Earnhardt said. "I definitely want to experience it before my career is over, if even only once."