NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, a four-time Sprint Cup Series champion, watches… (Robert Laberge / Getty Images…)
Judging by the fans cheering from the stands and seeking his autograph in the garage, Jeff Gordon is among NASCAR's most popular drivers when the series visits Southern California.
But Gordon himself has had little to cheer about so far in the Sprint Cup Series season.
The four-time Cup champion is off to a lousy start in 2012. He's languishing in 23rd in the standings — 72 points behind leader Greg Biffle — and has only one top-10 finish after four races.
"There's not much to talk about so far this season," he said.
Gordon is too savvy a veteran to panic this early in the year, and Sunday's race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana could be the place to start turning things around.
Gordon, 40, is a three-time winner in Fontana and the Hendrick Motorsports driver has 10 top-five finishes in 22 career starts on the two-mile oval.
But his last victory there came in 2004 and Gordon will have his hands full Sunday because he qualified a mediocre 21st in the 43-car field.
Gordon said his No. 24 Chevrolet generally has been fast enough but twice he's been the victim of circumstances.
Engine failure handed him a 40th-place finish at Daytona. He finished eighth in Phoenix and 12th in Las Vegas. Then he hit the wall at Bristol Motor Speedway last weekend after making contact with teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and, after repairs, finished 35th.
"I feel like our team is better right now than they were last year, but yet we haven't been able to show the results," said Gordon, a native of Vallejo, Calif.
"We just qualified really bad [30th] at Phoenix," he said. "In Vegas, we qualified better [16th], still didn't qualify good enough in my opinion," he said. "You only have to do a couple little things to get yourself off .... and it looks to the rest of the world as if you're struggling. We're certainly not that."
Gordon, who finished eighth in the Cup standings last year, said "there's not an urgency" to improve with 22 races left in NASCAR's "regular season" before its 10-race Chase for the Cup title playoff begins in mid-September.
But he added: "We're starting to feel a bit more pressure to start putting those good finishes together that I know we are capable of doing."
Gloomy race forecast
Rain was forecast for Fontana on Sunday but "we won't make a decision until [Sunday] morning" on whether to delay the Auto Club 400 or otherwise alter its starting time, NASCAR spokeswoman Kristi King said Saturday.
If it does rain, King said NASCAR "will do everything they can to get the race in." Auto Club Speedway has lights for night racing.