RICHMOND, Va. – Jeff Gordon could have gotten into NASCAR’s “Chase for the Championship” the easy way; by winning Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Int’l Raceway.
But when Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet was a handful at the beginning of the race Gordon had to grab the final Wild Card position the hard way; by finishing far enough ahead of Kyle Busch to make it in on points.
With the top 10 drivers in points after last Saturday night’s race qualified for The Chase the final two Wild Card positions are awarded to two drivers in positions 11-20 with the most victories. Gordon’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne had a firm grasp on one of those Wild Cards with two wins.
Both Gordon and Busch had one win this season and Busch entered the race 12th in points. If he were able to maintain that points position he would have been the Wild Card. Instead, it was Gordon that overcame adversity to finish second at Richmond while Busch finished 16th one lap down to race winner Clint Bowyer.
That was enough to move Gordon into 12th by just three points over Busch and with both drivers having one win Gordon clinched the Wild Card.
The four-time Brickyard 400 winner from Pittsboro, Ind., will attempt to win his fifth Cup championship when the Chase begins next Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.
“I went from last week to being the most disappointed I’ve ever been to finish second to the most excited I’ve ever been to finish second,” Gordon said after the race that was delayed by rain and stopped for rain and ended at close to 1:30 a.m. Eastern Time on Sunday. “Wow, what a race for us. We just flat out missed the setup at the beginning. Luckily Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) and the engineers got together and found the tools that we could utilize to make the car better. The biggest thing is that rear bar; we just had to get rid of it. We did that. We cut the chain. Our car really started coming to us right then. We finally got some drive‑off.
“You can look at this race. All the things that have gone for us this year, everything went right for us tonight. We had some guys stay out there on tires on basically that last caution that really cost them good finishing positions. We came in and got tires at that time. We were able to drive up through there. I had a good race car.”
Once Gordon had a “good race car” he was able to do what he had to do and that was drive through the field in an impressive effort to make the Chase.
“Alan called a great timing for that last pit stop because Tony Stewart was ahead of us,” Gordon said. “We short‑pitted it, and it worked us getting out ahead of Tony and run Mark Martin down at the end.
“It was amazing. I still can’t believe we actually did it. I know how proud Rick (Hendrick, team owner) is to have all four teams into this Chase. That was a big goal of ours. It’s pretty amazing to know we accomplished that.”
Gordon is the final “Brickyard Legend” to enter the 2012 Chase for the Championship. The others include four-time Brickyard 400 winner and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who is seeded second behind Brad Keselowski; two-time Brickyard winner and three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart of Columbus, Indiana – the defending Cup champion who is seeded third. Also, 2003 Brickyard 400 winner Kevin Harvick will start the Chase ninth and Gordon is seeded 12th.
Other drivers with strong connections to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway include fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr., whose father Dale won the second Brickyard 400 in 1995. He is seeded seventh. And former United States Auto Club (USAC) standout who lived in Indianapolis while he was an open-wheel start, Kahne, is the 11th seed.
As for Gordon, he earned the final Wild Card by the narrowest of margins, right down to the last calculation.
“We discussed prior to the race that we weren’t going to talk about it until that final run,” Gordon said. “Even in that final run, they just kept saying, ‘Go get that next one, all right, go get that next one.’ We were going through a bunch of cars there because there were guys on old tires. We were passing cars. I didn’t know what position we were in. I didn’t know what was going on. I knew that it looked like some guys were staying out because of how slow they were running. Alan got pretty animated when he said, You got to get the 55 (Martin Truex, Jr.), you have to get the 55, and there was 10 to go.
“I kind of had an idea that that would get us in, but he didn’t ever say it. I’m assuming, yes, they were calculating it some way, somehow.”
While Gordon’s Chevrolet excelled at the end Busch’s Toyota never got better and that has left the Joe Gibbs Racing driver out of the Chase.
“We missed. That’s it. Plain and simple,” Busch said. “There’s no right way to handle this situation.”
Gordon’s reward came after a tense night of delays – first to start the race because of rain and then a lengthy red-flag period just shy of the half-way point of the race.
“I was not very smiling and happy at that rain delay, the one red flag. I was pretty ticked off that we got that far behind,” Gordon admitted. “I’ll be honest. for me as a racecar driver, when you have that kind of start to the race, you don’t have a lot of hope you’re going to get it turned around.
“I went to Alan. He never wavered. He was confident. They were looking at the data from what we had, to our teammates, even Tony. We had just done the rear bar. They were pretty confident that was going to get us close to our teammates. He was right. I still had a little doubt in him, though.
“I felt like I won the race tonight. When that was over, they told me I was in the Chase, we made it, I mean, I was ecstatic. I was going nuts. To me, after you have that kind of effort, fall back, then come up there and finish second, almost win the race, make it in by one point, man, I don’t see any reason why we can’t go over these next 10 races and be a real threat for the championship.
“Man, that was an awesome effort. I tell what you, I’m so fired up to get this Chase started, I don’t care where we are starting points, we’re in it. I have to thank Chase Credit Card Services and all that they are doing for our Drive To End Hunger; it’s such an awesome program; and Chevrolet, Dupont, Pepsi, Quaker State. Man, that was so much fun there at the end to be able to drive up through there. They did it. I mean, Alan is such a great crew chief and he never gave up. He kept me fired up, this whole team, we never got out of it as bad as it looked and we made this car good enough to go up there and run up front and almost win the thing. That was amazing.”
By overcoming adversity and making the Chase Gordon feels that he has momentum on his side. And that is why he believes he can be a factor to win The Chase.
“What an exhausting race,” Gordon admitted. “So much pressure on us I thought that the weekend had gone so well for our Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet. When they dropped the green we got the lead and I knew that the drive off just wasn’t there that we were in trouble. Man we started going backwards, but Alan Gustafson (crew chief) what an awesome crew chief to make the calls that he and our engineers made to fix this car. Thank our teammates as well because they had good race cars gave us some good notes to go off of. We made some drastic changes and man did it bring the car to life. We were a lap down, we just never gave up. That is just an awesome effort. That is what the Chase and the Wild Card is all about right there. You want it to come down to the final laps at Richmond. I have been predicting this for weeks that it is going to come down to it, I just didn’t know if we were going to be able to pull it off. Thank all the fans for supporting us through all of this frustration that we have been through this year, now let’s go win us this championship.
“After that effort we can definitely do this thing.”