Gordon wants to keep momentum going

Friday, October 31st 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) _ Jeff Gordon has two goals remaining this season _ catch second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the standings and keep his newfound momentum going.

The four-time Winston Cup champion went through a slump that began at midseason and all but took him out of the championship race. But six straight top-five finishes, including two victories in a row, have Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports team excited.

Going into Sunday's Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, Gordon is fifth in the standings. He is just 38 points behind Earnhardt, who trails runaway series leader Matt Kenseth by 258.

This year's championship remains a mathematical possibility with three races remaining, but Gordon isn't spending a lot of time thinking about the unlikely chance of catching Kenseth.

``Our main focus has been second in points,'' Gordon said Thursday. ``We've made big gains toward that. I guess if there is a miracle, there's still a possibility.

``We just want to keep doing what we're doing right now, and that's putting great race cars out there, communicating well and fighting until the end.''

Third-place Kevin Harvick (262 points behind the leader) and Jimmie Johnson (266) also are in the running for the title.

But Kenseth, who has been in the points lead since the fourth race of the season, can clinch his first championship simply by finishing 21st or better in each of the last three races, no matter what his pursuers do.

There is actually another challenge for Gordon at Phoenix, one of only four active tracks where the owner of 64 career victories has yet to take a checkered flag.

He has also failed to reach Victory Circle at Texas Motor Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway.

``We've had solid finishes at each of these tracks,'' Gordon said. ``That isn't good enough, though. Our team is capable of winning at each and every track.''

Meanwhile, though, Gordon is just happy with the momentum he and the No. 24 team have built.

His much-needed streak comes after a stretch filled with bad luck during which a frustrated Gordon finished better than 19th in seven of 10 events.

``These past two weeks have really given our team the needed confidence to take on these tracks where we know we can win but haven't,'' Gordon said. ``With only three races left, I think we have some more left in us before it's all over this year.''

Gordon's team even saved one of its limited in-season tests for Phoenix.

``We learned a lot that will help us this weekend,'' he said.

Gordon has run well on the 1-mile Phoenix oval over the years, recording four top fives and eight top 10s in 10 races here. And he came close to a win last year, leading 16 laps and finishing third behind winner Kenseth and runner-up Rusty Wallace.

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