CONCORD, N.C. (AP) – Jeff Gordon is normally unflappable, able to jump with ease from the seat of a speeding race car to a gig hosting “Saturday Night Live.”

Yet, there he was, butchering “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” with a garbled rendition that brought boos from Wrigley Field fans this week in Chicago. The four-time NASCAR champion swears he didn’t forget the words and denied accusations he was drunk. Turns out, the smoothest guy in the Nextel Cup series gets rattled every once in a while.

“The one thing that scares me the most is singing in front of anybody,” Gordon said. “I was petrified. It was definitely a moment I’m not proud of, but it’s a moment that’s going to haunt me for a long time.”

The one place Gordon is always calm is in a race car, where he’ll be Sunday night, searching for a win in the Coca-Cola 600. He’ll start second behind pole-sitter Ryan Newman.

The race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway has given Gordon his share of highs and lows. He scored the first of his 72 career victories in this race in 1994, and added wins in 1997 and 1998. But teammate Jimmie Johnson has emerged as the driver to beat at Lowe’s. He is the two-time defending winner of this race, and he won last season by leading 500 of the 600 miles.

Gordon, meanwhile, finished a whopping seven laps down in 30th place.

But Gordon thinks he’s since closed the gap on his teammate and is a legitimate threat to win the longest race on the NASCAR schedule. He’s also buoyed by the fast start the No. 24 team is off to this season: Gordon already has three wins, including the Daytona 500.

“I think I picked up a lot on Jimmie when we were here in October,” Gordon said, referring to his runner-up finish to Johnson. “Now it’s just a question of whether or not that carries over into this next race. We’re running really well right now.”

Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports team has mastered this track. Aside from his back-to-back 600 wins, Johnson also won last October and finished fifth in last weekend’s All-Star race.

“We could probably take a Volkswagen Beetle over there and run pretty competitive,” said Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief. “Jimmie’s got a great feel for a race car and he’s got a great feel for Lowe’s Motor Speedway.”

This time, however, all the drivers must adjust to a track whose surface was changed this spring. LMS president Humpy Wheeler used a diamond-grinding machine to smooth bumps in an effort to create better racing.

What he got was a remarkably fast race track – 18 drivers broke the track record in qualifying with Newman running a lap at 192.988 mph.

But Gordon thinks the removal of the bumps, once the trademark of this track, has made the racing too fast to permit passing and side-by-side racing.

“We’re going too fast to put on a good race, but I don’t think we’re going too fast, safetywise,” Gordon said. “The track has a lot of grip, and it’s really smooth and fast. I just wish the tire gave up a little bit more under race conditions.”

Drivers also must adjust to the changing conditions that come from beginning a race in the daylight and ending late into the night.

This is the one race on the schedule where a driver can’t adapt to the way his car is driving at the moment. Rather, he must think about what changes need to be made once the sun goes down and the track begins to cool.

“You really don’t pay attention to how many laps you’ve run. You pay attention to how many laps you have left,” Tony Stewart said. “You know how many laps are in a segment and you know that when it comes to that last segment that you better have it right. And in the second to last segment, you better be working your way to the front so that you don’t have to pass a lot of cars in that last green flag segment.

“Everything that we do pretty much works from the end of the race backward, and that’s how we plan our strategy.”

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