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The Inside Line: Gordon gearing up for the Chase

<p>With seven races to go before the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship begins, two drivers have clinched a spot in the playoffs -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski.</p>

(SportsNetwork.com) - With seven races to go before the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship begins, two drivers have clinched a spot in the playoffs -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski.

Earnhardt and Keselowski have secured their positions since both drivers have multiple wins this season and they are more than 337 points ahead of the 31st- place driver in the standings. Earnhardt has two victories and is currently second in points. Keselowski earned his third win of the season this past Sunday at New Hampshire, moving him up to third in the rankings.

Jeff Gordon is presently atop the standings but has yet to clinch a spot in the Chase. Gordon has been either first or second in points since the April 7 race at Texas. His one victory this season -- May 10 at Kansas -- has virtually assured him a berth in the playoffs. He's likely to secure his position in the next race or two.

"I think we're in a good position," Gordon said. "We recognize that it's all about wins right now, and we need to win some more races to get ourselves seeded even better than what we are when that Chase starts. But regardless, I feel like we have a team that definitely can do very, very well in this new format over the 10 races in the Chase."

With the Chase field expanded to 16 drivers starting this season, the number of competitors in contention for the Sprint Cup title will decrease after every three playoff races. Just four drivers will remain in the Chase when the series heads to Homestead for the season-finale on Nov. 16. The highest finishing driver among the final four in the 10th and final playoff race will win the series championship.

The Sprint Cup Series is off next weekend -- the final break of the season -- before resuming its schedule with the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis the last weekend in July.

After Indianapolis, the series moves on to Pocono and then Watkins Glen, Michigan, Bristol and Atlanta before the regular season concludes on Sept. 6 at Richmond.

Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, share the record for most Sprint Cup race wins at Indianapolis with four each. Gordon leads all drivers with six victories at Pocono.

"Indianapolis is a great track for us, as strong as our cars are and our team is this year," Gordon said. "I think Indianapolis is a track we can really shine, and we were really strong at Pocono the last time we were there [June 8]. I feel really, really good about these next couple races."

Gordon is a four-time Cup Series champion but has not won a title since 2001, three years before NASCAR instituted a playoff format (Chase) for its premier series.

At age 42, Gordon is hopeful he can win another Cup championship. He's not thinking about retirement at this moment but would consider it if he were to capture his fifth title. He turns 43 on Aug. 4.

Gordon has been dealing with back problems, particularly in May when he suffered from back spasms during the weekend of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte -- NASCAR's longest race of the season. He finished seventh in that event but had Nationwide Series regular Regan Smith on standby.

On Sunday at New Hampshire, Gordon was in position to win late in the race. He ran in front for 19 laps before Brad Keselowski passed him and took the lead for good. During a caution in the closing laps, Gordon ran out of fuel and coasted back to the pits when he had been running in second. He ended up finishing 26th.

"We were able to lead some laps there at the end," he said. "Unfortunately, that last caution came out, and we ended up running out of fuel, but I think that as well as other races leading up to this point have shown just how much strength our team has."

Keselowski is now tied with Johnson for most wins in the series this season after putting on a dominating performance at New Hampshire. The Team Penske driver led 138 of 305 laps. Keselowski also dominated at Kentucky two weeks ago, leading 199 of 267 laps en route to victory there.

"I don't know what they've [Keselowski's team] got, but they've got something that's really good right now, and we're playing catch-up." Gordon said.

Johnson, the six-time and defending series champion, has finished 42nd in the last two races and dropped to fifth in points.

Right now, Keselowski is ranked first on NASCAR's Chase grid, followed by Johnson, Earnhardt, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick. Gordon is seventh.

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