After 34 races, Jeff Gordon's championship hopes conceivably could come down to just one.

After 34 races, Jeff Gordon's championship hopes conceivably could come down to just one.

Even though the season finale is next week in Homestead, Fla., what Gordon does this Sunday in the Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway will go a long way toward determining what next week might hold in store for him.

Or even if there will be a next week for him.

Heading to the Valley of the Sun, Gordon has to shine, lest the sun go down on his hopes for a fifth career Cup championship.

Two questions are of the utmost importance for the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet.

First, will Gordon, who surrendered the Nextel Cup points lead this past Sunday to teammate Jimmie Johnson, be able to erase the 30-point edge Johnson now has?

Second, will Gordon, who won for the first time in his career at PIR this past spring, be able to repeat that type of performance Sunday, knowing that's pretty much the only way he'll be able to catch Johnson?

"All we can do is go to the next race and hope that we can turn it around and get some momentum back on our side," Gordon said. "There is really no other way to put it other than (Johnson has) been performing excellent.

"We haven't stepped up where we need to. If this thing comes down to performance, they've out-performed us. If it comes down to staying out of trouble and being smart, I still think we've got a great shot at it."

In the last three races, all Johnson wins, Gordon has gone from having a 68-point lead to a 30-point deficit over Johnson, who is seeking his second consecutive Cup championship.

"It's hard for anybody right now to step up and beat them, let alone us," Gordon said.

But if Gordon can find a way to win Sunday and Johnson finishes lower than fifth, both drivers would go into the season finale in a virtual dead heat points-wise.

"Thirty isn't much," Gordon said. "We've got to go put some pressure back on them and out-perform them. Phoenix is a good track for us, and we'll go there and fight hard just like we did (at Texas). Hopefully, we can get those points back."

Indeed, Gordon has an outstanding record on the one-mile flat surface in Phoenix. In 17 career starts, he has 14 top-10 finishes, including last spring's win and seven other top-five showings.

"I think we might be able to beat them (at Phoenix) if we're just talking sheer performance," Gordon said matter-of-factly.

But at the same time, Johnson has been no shirk himself at PIR. In eight career starts, he has three top-five and three other top-10 finishes.

"He's pretty tough there, too," Gordon acknowledged. "If it comes down to that, I think we've just got to keep playing it smart and being consistent and keep doing the things that we've been doing all year long.

"All we can do is go out there and perform the best we possibly can and hope that it's enough."

Johnson lost to Kurt Busch in the first Chase for the Nextel Cup championship in 2004 by a mere eight points, the smallest title-winning margin in Cup history.

Yet with the way Johnson has been driving and winning of late, 30 points looks awfully large right now to Gordon.

"Yeah, it's still close, but they're spanking us, they're putting it to us," Gordon said. "I don't like it. We're very competitive, and we're just getting beat. We've got to go to work. We've got to get it back. With three in a row they're on a great roll. We've got to answer back. That's all there is to it."

Jerry Bonkowski is National NASCAR Columnist for Yahoo! Sports and a featured contributor to Gatehouse News Service. He can be reached at NASCARColumnist@yahoo.com.