CONCORD, N.C. – Jeff Gordon earned the first of his 82 victories at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Now, 16 years later, he’s stuck in the longest losing streak of his career.

But his pole-winning run has him in strong position to snap that 59-race drought tonight at Charlotte, where he has five career wins, but only one since 1999. It was Gordon’s first pole of the year and a breakthrough victory this weekend would bolster his chance of winning the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

“This is huge and a huge shock,” he said of earning the top starting spot. “We just have not been qualifying good this year and we haven’t qualified this well at Charlotte for like 10 years. I thought for sure a half-dozen guys would beat us. It’s awesome timing in the Chase.”

Tonight marks the halfway point in the Chase, and Gordon goes into the race ranked fourth in the standings. He’s 85 points behind Jimmie Johnson, the four-time defending series champion and Gordon’s one-time protege at Hendrick Motorsports.

There was a time this season, despite his failure to get to Victory Lane, when Gordon felt he was running better than his teammate. But as the summer dragged on and it came time to prepare for the Chase, it was Johnson and his No. 48 team that took off.

Gordon began to fade and hasn’t contended for a victory in months. He hasn’t earned a top-five since Chicago in July, and although he has three top-10s through the first four Chase races, he’s not lighting the world on fire.

But Gordon is impressed with how his No. 24 team has handled the dropoff.

“I feel like we haven’t emotionally gotten torn down. I feel like we’ve lost some momentum,” Gordon said. “What a win does is carries you through more races on a high and with confidence. That is what I am proud of — we haven’t won at all this year, we haven’t won for a long time, and while we don’t have the confidence that we had probably at that point in the season, we haven’t self-destructed either.”

So as the Chase field is separating and Johnson is getting more and more comfortable atop the standings — he’s got a 36-point lead over Denny Hamlin — the drivers chasing him know they can’t let Johnson get any further ahead.

Hamlin is usually pretty decent at Charlotte, but doesn’t have the finishes to show for it. He led 54 laps last October before his engine failed, hasn’t had a top-10 finish at CMS since 2007 and has an average finish of 18.5.

And Kevin Harvick, third in the standings and 54 points back, has never had much success at Charlotte despite a win in the All-Star race. Through 19 career starts, he has just three top-10 finishes and average finish of 20.7 — worst among the Chase field.

 

KESELOWSKI WINS: Brad Keselowski is piling up the wins in the Nationwide Series.

Keselowski pulled away on a late restart at Charlotte Motor Speedway, earning his fifth Nationwide victory of the season.

Keselowski extended his advantage in the season standings to 450 points, leading the final 35 laps.

Martin Truex Jr. finished second, followed by Justin Allgaier, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer, who started on the pole but had a costly pit-road speeding penalty late.

JR MOTORSPORTS locked in Danica Patrick for the first four Nationwide Series races of 2011, and the rest of her schedule will depend on her IndyCar commitments.

Team co-owner Kelley Earnhardt said that Patrick will run at Daytona, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Bristol next season. It will be her first trip to Bristol’s .533-mile bullring.

“That will be kind of neat for her to get to experience what NASCAR is all about and that’s basically going around Bristol,” said crew chief Tony Eury Jr.

Patrick will take a break from NASCAR after Bristol to concentrate on the IndyCar schedule through the Indianapolis 500 in May. She’ll then resume Nationwide racing that will be coordinated with her IndyCar commitments.

Earnhardt said Patrick can run up to 14 races in the No. 7 Chevrolet, but the car will run the full season. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is expected to run four races in the car.

“I know we’re all anxious to get the whole schedule put in place, but I’m extremely excited to be able to confirm our participation in the first four races,” Patrick said. “We’ll have four extremely challenging and unique races to start our 2011 season, and I’m anxious to return to a lot of those tracks with at least a little bit of familiarity.”

Patrick said she knows at some point next season she’ll have to make a decision about her commitment to NASCAR.

She ended the IndyCar season two weeks ago, finishing 10th in the final standings.

“We haven’t made all of those decisions, 2012 is a little up in the air and it depends on the opportunities, where I could run, what Kelley is doing, what’s happening at JR Motorsports, what’s happening on the sponsorship side,” Patrick said.