Four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon turned his first test laps at Kentucky Speedway today attempting to create the elusive balance between speed and comfort in his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

Gordon will enter Sunday's race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway sixth in the Sprint Cup standings after picking up three spots with his third-place effort at Infineon Raceway June 22. The run marked his seventh top-five and eighth top-10 finish this season.

Crew Chief Steve Letarte described the Sonoma, Calif., experience in which the No. 24 started fifth and struggled at the outset as a microcosm of the team's season through 16 of 36 races.

"It definitely wasn't the car we wanted at the start of the race, but the guys dug down deep and made good adjustments. Jeff drove a really smart race and we ended up getting a good finish out of it.

"That seems to be a lot of our year this year. Hopefully, we can learn some stuff here and get our cars faster come the rest of the year," Letarte said.

Despite having three of its four drivers among the top six in the current Sprint Cup Series standings - team newcomer Dale Earnhardt, Jr., ranks third while defending series champion Jimmie Johnson occupies fifth - the Hendrick Motorsports teams have publicly stated they feel they are behind in the development of the current series car design.

Letarte was asked to estimate how close he thinks his team is to producing the results that had the No. 24 leading the series standings by 171 points after taking four wins, 10 top-five and 14 top-10 finishes in the opening 16 races of 2007.

"I think our teammates have done a better job catching up. We're still struggling getting the balance we really need. I think we're a lot further off than 75 or 80 percent. I think we're not even halfway there. I hold us in higher regard. I expect to have a higher potential. We may be 30 to 40 percent off our opponents, but I think we have way more than that to gain. Hopefully, we'll get the advantage we had last year," he said.

Although Gordon has reeled off four top-five finishes in the past six races, Letarte claims the No. 24 team has more work to do to fulfill its 2008 potential.

"I think I'm happy with everything except our cars. We have a great pit crew, strong guys. We just can't seem to get the cars comfortable and fast at the same time. It's hit or miss, one or the other. I think we need to be on track more, work more and see if we can get some comfort in the cars," Letarte added.

Expect Gordon to exploit any newfound car comfort during the upcoming event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway where he took two second-place finishes last season and has earned three wins, 12 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes through 26 career starts.

Even though his driver ranks firmly in the top 12 in the current standings with a 149-point cushion over current 12th-place championship contender Matt Kenseth with 10 races remaining before the start of this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup, Letarte will not rest easy until his team safely qualifies for the season-ending 10-race shootout.

"I won't feel comfortable until we leave Richmond. We learned that in 2005 (when Gordon slipped from 10th to 12th in the series standings with a 21st-place showing at California Speedway Sept. 4 and did not qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup). Never feel comfortable, never give up.

"I'm happier than I'd be if we were 13th and I'm happier than we were last week when we gained some spots. When it comes down to it, we've got to have better cars. It doesn't matter if we make the Chase or not. As competitive as we are on the track right now, it won't make a difference in the final 10," Letarte said.

Gillett Evernham Motorsports driver Elliott Sadler and Dale Earnhardt, Inc., driver Regan Smith also turned test laps this afternoon.

Story by Mike Schmaltz

~ Kentucky Speedway ~