They say racing can boil down to a matter of inches. But in what’s become a wacky Chase, “inches” can simply be replaced by “finishing.”
Just take a look at Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth. One is spending this Monday morning relishing the glory of a title clearly within their grasp; the other is shaking his head at a championship bid gone painfully sour. Without question, their two Chases couldn’t be more different, or could they?
A quick look at the standings appears to concede just how opposite the two men’s experiences have been on paper. Gordon is currently holding onto the top spot, leading second-place Jimmie Johnson by 68 in his now six-year quest for title number five. Far behind those two on the mountain looms Kenseth, still looking for a place to climb up behind them. In fact, he’s bringing up the rear of the ’07 Chase, 442 points behind in 12th and already focused on looking ahead to 2008.
Yet, looking at certain stats makes you realize just how close Kenseth was to concentrating on 2007. The driver of the No. 17 Roush Fenway Ford has led 273 laps in the last five events, second-best among all drivers vying for this year’s title trophy. In contrast, Gordon’s led just 79 circuits, even though he’s the only man to win twice during the playoffs. Still, both men have led in three of five Chase races so far, and each one has, at one time or another, fought through their fair share of adversity.
The difference is, racing luck gave Gordon all the opportunities he needed to recover.
Both men began the Chase showcasing their strength, as Gordon finished second and Kenseth seventh at the tricky track up at Loudon. It was at Dover that their paths started to diverge in completely different directions. All day long at the Monster Mile, Gordon’s car appeared ready for the junk heap – falling one lap off the pace, he could only watch as Kenseth’s Ford blew by en route to leading a race-high 192 of the first 374 laps of the race.
But Kenseth’s car wouldn’t be around for lap 375. In an instant, his engine was toast and Gordon was coasting home, relishing an opportunity to bring his car to the line 11th in what turned out to be an attrition-filled demolition derby.
“It’s kind of a shame,” said Kenseth. “We were in a good spot to win the race, and we were in a good spot to gain some points for the championship [on Gordon]. It just wasn’t to be today.”
“We just came up short.”
“It was effective because we survived,” countered Gordon. “We fought through to a decent finish and somehow, we’ve come out of it with the points lead.”
How telling those words would be.
Fast forward to Kansas. Again, Kenseth proved to be a contender, leading 49 laps and setting himself up to be a man on a mission. Until, of course, Mother Nature’s mission took over – causing hours of rain delay in the middle of green-flag pit stops and leaving multiple cars that were up front on the tail end of the lead lap when the race was restarted. As you would expect in those types of situations, the resulting green flag proved a crash waiting to happen; when the smoke cleared, it was Kenseth, not Gordon, in the garage cleaning up a tangled mess.
The race continued; Gordon recovered, winding up a topsy-turvy day in fifth place. Once again, Kenseth was sitting on the sidelines, in no condition to do anything but wonder what could have been if the tables were turned.
By now, there was a pattern, ready to repeat itself by the time Talladega came around. As Bobby Labonte lost control of his car in turn 4 – triggering the Big One with 42 laps to go – both Kenseth and Gordon were behind the vicious wreck that would ensue.
Luckily, only one of them made it out unscathed, and it wasn’t the No. 17.
“It’s hairy out there,” said Gordon after that race, comforted by the winning trophy not far away from his post-race press conference. “We just wanted to play it safe (during the race) until it really counted.”
Of course, no amount of “safety” could have prevented the No. 24 from getting smashed should a select few cars have been turned around a little different. But the bottom line remains, at this point, it was the Rainbow Warrior who had captured all the momentum.
Which brings us to Lowe’s, the latest brick laid in Gordon’s quest to Chase a title. There was 72 laps led, a second straight win, but most of all, two crucial bullets dodged – Gordon not only nearly ran out of gas but could have been popped in the wall by a teammate in Kyle Busch who is merely a teammate in name only at this point. However, Busch held off, the fuel kept chugging, and Gordon kept pushing to the finish.
Behind him, Kenseth sat sullen in the garage area; after leading 32 laps, a spin on the frontstretch was followed by another series of wrecks. They weren’t all his fault, but that wasn’t unexpected, either, in a series of unfortunate events that has simply become par for the course.
“I don’t know where to start,” Kenseth said Saturday night to list his pain of miseries.
Hours later, Gordon was saying the same thing after another trip to Victory Lane.
“I don’t know where to start,” he exclaimed. “I’m fired up about this.”
“I can’t tell you how many times we tried to give this one away.”
But he didn’t; instead, it was Kenseth inheriting all the potential sadness, turning it into reality in the worst possible way.
“I have absolutely no excuse,” he said from the garage.
Yes, he does. A little luck isn’t usually hard to find.
Too bad Gordon’s taken this year’s all for himself.