CONCORD, N.C. - The leaves around the Lowe's Motor Speedway have started to change colors. When apples are being harvested in the Piedmont and the trees are trading their summer green for autumn's orange, yellow and brown, it means one thing: the racing season will go to auto pilot.
NASCAR Winston Cup Series points leader Jeff Gordon has only eight races, including today's UAW/GM 500 (12:30 p.m., NBC-26) , to survive to win his fourth championship.
A commanding 222-point lead over Ricky Rudd means he can focus one eye on the road ahead and one on his rearview mirror. The mission from here on out is to keep his Chevrolet Monte Carlo in one piece and concentrate on top-10 finishes.
If Gordon finishes no worse than fifth in each of the final eight races and manages to lead at least one lap in four different races, he will clinch the championship and become only the third driver in the sport's history to win four titles. The only others to do it were Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, and they each won seven.
If that sounds like a difficult goal, consider this: Gordon has finished in the top five in seven of his last nine races and he's led at least one lap in six of the last nine races. And once the green flag waves for the UAW/GM 500, Gordon knows his four victories at the 1.5-mile quad-oval are the most of any active driver.
His run to the top of the leaderboard of the point standings has been so impressive, he's confident he can rally from a 20th-place spot on the starting lineup.
"If it's a zero, I think it will be because of an accident or a failure," he said. "I'm basing that on our entire year. We've been really strong and running up front just about everywhere.
"You can't go out there worrying about staying out of trouble. I'm out there trying to get the best finishes I can. To do that, you've got to finish. I'm going out there trying to be smart and driving the car hard enough to know what it's doing. I'm measuring up the competition to get those positions when they come. Whatever happens, happens."
It doesn't seem to matter where Gordon starts a race. He was 27th at Indianapolis and won. He was 13th at Watkins Glen, N.Y., and won. And he was on the outside pole a week ago at Kansas City and won.
Gordon and Rudd both need to hope there's a big difference between qualifying speeds and race speeds. Both were nearly 3 mph slower than the pole speed set by Jimmy Spencer, but they know race speeds rarely approach qualifying standards since the car is changes to be more reliable in a long run.
Spencer's hot lap was clocked at 185.147 mph. His teammate at Haas-Carter Motorsports, Todd Bodine, was second-fastest at 184.489 mph.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com