LONG POND, Pa. - It's a question Nextel Cup driver Jeff Gordon has pondered since his embarrassing singing performance of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" at a Chicago Cubs baseball game in mid-May. Is he under the spell of the Cubs' famous curse?
"I don't think there is anything to that," said Gordon, who joked two weeks ago that he would like to get out from under the curse. "I'm not superstitious, really. To me, you make your luck through preparation and hard work. When I look at our situation, I see some self-induced and some uncontrollable circumstances.
"I've been racing long enough to know a lucky pair of socks aren't what make things happen. At least, I don't think they do."
But Gordon, 33, who qualified his No. 24 Chevrolet 21st for today's Pennsylvania 500, might be wavering on that.
After all, what is to be made of this season? It has been a long time since Gordon, the four-time series champion, has had a string of finishes that read more like bingo numbers than race-day finishes: 39-30-39-9-32-33-7-33-25. And the unsightly run began the week he agreed to appear at the Cubs game and has continued right up to this weekend.
"This season has been inspiring, frustrating and motivating," said Gordon, who has dropped to 15th in the points standings, 538 behind his teammate and points leader Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson qualified ninth yesterday, and Jamie McMurray, in the No. 42 Chip Gannassi-owned Dodge, won his first pole of the season with a run of 168.761 mph. Kurt Busch was second in his No. 97 Ford at 168.533 mph.
Most of the time, Gordon ignores the idea of curses and thinks practically, as does Johnson who said he believes Gordon's bad streak has more to do with cycles than curses.
"I truly want him in the Chase," Johnson said, referring to the final 10-race run that determines the series champion from among the top 10 drivers and anyone else within 400 points of the leader after 26 races.
"Right now, I know Jeff is disappointed by the way things have gone," he said. "They've had some crashes and gotten caught up in some things. Transmission problems with his car and my car at Sonoma that hurt [all of] us. So there's been some bad performances and some bad luck, too.
"Those guys are working hard and hate not competing for wins, and I really believe Robbie Loomis and Jeff will go out there and be back in this before long. In our sport, everything goes in cycles, and when you're on top it's just natural to not change much until people are outrunning you."
From first to cursed
Gordon said he and his No. 24 team were misled in the early part of the season by their results. They won the Daytona 500, and Gordon said he remembers saying to himself after that race, "How can life get any better than this?"
The Daytona win was quickly followed by wins at Talladega and Martinsville over the first nine races of the season. Those wins, combined with on-track accidents at other tracks, masked the problems the team was having on mid-size and faster tracks.
"It took us some time to realize we were off on the mile, the mile-and-a-half and two-mile fast tracks," Gordon said. "We had a false sense of security in our setups."
But then came the Cubs game and more misfortune at Charlotte, where Gordon was challenging for the victory until getting out of pit sequence when teammate Brian Vickers' car hit Bill Elliott's and brought out an inopportune caution flag, and Dover, where his car was hit from behind. Suddenly, Gordon seemed in a free-fall and found himself relying more on the good things in his personal life to keep a positive attitude.
One of those, he said, is a strong relationship with a woman he declined to identify, though he was spotted at an NBA playoff game with model/actress Ingrid Vandebosch.
"I don't know what it is that makes it so you can't seem to have both sides going well at once," he said. "But without the good things in my personal life right now, it would have been much more difficult to get through this."
More of the bad came last week at New Hampshire, where he seemed headed for a top-five finish with 13 laps to go, only to have his brakes fail and relegate him to 25th.
It was, Gordon said, an isolated incident, something he and his team looked into, figured out and now understand. But though they were encouraged by the early part of the run, the brakes left a question.
"I understand why it happened," he said. "But then there is the other question: Why hasn't it ever happened before? That's what makes you scratch your head."
'I'm not going back'
In two months, he has tumbled from second to 15th in points and is 120 points out of 10th, the last guaranteed spot for The Chase.
"Maybe it is the Cubs' curse," Gordon said. "How do I get rid of it?"
Go back for an encore.
"I'm not going back!" he said with animation and dread. "I'll go to a game, but I'm not going back to sing."
Then Gordon laughed at himself.
"OK," he said. "You want to know how we get out of this and make the top 10? I'll tell you. First we start performing to our ability and finish races. I'd love to say we can take baby steps, but there are only seven races left. It's doable, but we're running out of time, and we've got to get our butts in gear."
"It's a tall order with the record we've had over the last two months."
As the interview wound down, Loomis, Gordon's crew chief, reminded him practice time was approaching.
"Hurry up," Loomis said. "We don't want to get off on the wrong foot. We want to give you every opportunity to yell at me."
Gordon laughed, got up and opened his locker to get his driver's uniform. As he pulled it out, a funny little smile crossed his face.
"Before you go," he said, "I want to show you one more thing."
With that, he reached back into his locker, pulled out a cap and put it on his head.
It was a Chicago Cubs cap.
"Someone must want me to laugh about this curse thing," he said.
Loomis stuck his head around the corner of the door.
"That's from the boys in the fab [fabrication] shop," Loomis said. "They said sometime before the race, you have to do an interview while wearing the cap. They said if you do that, the curse will be gone."
Gordon doesn't believe in curses, but if he runs well today, he won't discount his spontaneous act of showing off the cap.
"Maybe that counts," he said.