DOVER, Del. (AP) _ While it might not take another record-breaking run at Dover International Speedway, a strong finish in the MBNA Platinum 400 is critical to Jeff Gordon's title hopes.
The four-time Winston Cup champion is mired in the worst slump since the first of his 58 career victories in 1994. Gordon is winless in 20 races, but isn't worried.
``I'd be concerned if we weren't running well,'' he said as he began preparing for Sunday's race. ``We're running in the top five and leading laps.''
True, and he's fourth in the series standings, 191 points behind leader Sterling Marlin _ hardly an insurmountable deficit after just 12 of 36 races. But Gordon needs to maintain the mastery he has shown on The Monster Mile, where no active driver has won more and Marlin has just two top-five finishes in nearly two decades.
Never was Gordon more dominant on the high-banked concrete oval than a year ago, when he led a record 381 of 400 laps to win for the fourth time at Dover, one of the most difficult NASCAR tracks.
``That was the best car that I've ever had here,'' he said.
But Gordon knows dominance is no guarantee of victory at Dover. In 1998, he led 375 laps but was forced to pit for gas in the waning laps and settle for third.
He also realizes elusive career victory No. 59 won't be achieved unless he outruns Mark Martin, who broke a long drought of his own with a victory Sunday night in the Coca-Cola 600. Martin, third in the standings, is a three-time winner at Dover.
Gordon also should get stiff competition from Matt Kenseth, who remained second in points with a second-place finish behind Martin in Concord, N.C. And there's Tony Stewart, who swept Dover's two races in 2000.
Like Gordon, he's going next to four tracks _ Dover, Pocono Raceway, Michigan International Speedway and Sears Point Raceway _ where he's had great success. Stewart has won twice this season and is seventh in points behind Marlin, whose lone victory on any of those tracks came last August at Michigan.
``We're in a part of the season where the tracks are starting to get hot and slippery,'' Stewart said. ``When the tracks get slippery is when we start coming on.''
Martin also is excited about the next month.
``Dover is one of my favorite race tracks,'' he said. ``So is Pocono. So is Michigan.''
He also could have mentioned Sears Point, where he has a victory among seven top-three finishes.
Martin began this season with Ben Leslie as his crew chief. Car owner Jack Roush moved Jimmy Fennig to the car of second-year teammate Kurt Busch.
The switch has worked well for both, with the 23-year-old Busch getting his first career victory.
``We made the change because we thought it would be better,'' Martin said. ``Jack Roush and I have been together a long time and we know a little bit about what we're doing.''
Stewart, a career-best second to Gordon in points last year, hopes for another great run at Dover. His seventh-place finish in this race last year was the only time he's been out of the top five in six starts.
Still, Stewart is wary of Dover.
``If you get complacent with the fact that you think you're good enough to win, then that's when you're going to get beat,'' he said.
Complacency should be no problem for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won here last September and hopes to build off a third-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600.
``It's been kind of a disaster lately, lots of crashed cars,'' he said. ``But it feels good being back in Dover. It gives you a sense of confidence.''