By Jeff Wolfe
The saying goes that a little rain never hurt anybody.
But a few drops at around 12:30 a.m. Sunday in Richmond, Va., just may have saved Jeff Gordon’s season.
Gordon made an unlikely comeback to finish second in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway Saturday night/Sunday morning to become the final qualifier for NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship. The race was the last regular-season date on the schedule. The final ten races make up the sport’s version of the playoffs, the first of which is Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.
Gordon, who earlier Saturday night had bemoaned his ill-handling car during a 51-minute rain delay as he sat one lap down and well out of the Chase at that time, edged Kyle Busch for the 12th and final Chase spot by three points. Clint Bowyer, who was in obvious fuel-saving mode for the final 50 laps of the 400-lap race on the three-quarter mile D-shaped oval, earned the win, finishing just over two seconds ahead of Gordon in a race that ended about 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning due to about two-and-a-half hours of rain delays, including about a 90-minute delay to start the race in front of a crowd of 89,000.
And while Bowyer celebrated in Victory Lane for the second time this season after a fuel-saving run, Gordon, a four-time Sprint Cup champion, was elated to have his season saved by the final caution of the night for rain on lap 275.
“I went from last week being the most disappointed I’ve ever been to finish second to the most excited I’ve ever been to finish second,” said Gordon, who has one victory this year, in the rain-shortened race at Pocono in August. “Wow, what a race for us. We just flat out missed the setup at the beginning. I felt like I won the race tonight. When that was over, [and] they told me I was in the Chase, we made it, I mean, I was ecstatic. I was going nuts.”
Gordon admitted he was going a little nuts for another reason when the red flag waved to stop cars due to rain on lap 152. After starting second and leading the first two green flag laps of the race, he faded quickly and eventually found himself a lap down, fighting poor handling on the No. 24 car as crew chief Alan Gustafson tried to figure out how to make the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet faster.
“I was not very smiling and happy at that rain delay, the one red flag,” said Gordon, who joined Hendrick teammates Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne in the Chase. “I was pretty ticked off that we got that far behind. 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. “
After comparing Gordon’s car to each of his three teammates, Gustafson decided do away with the rear sway bar under the rear of the car.
“The biggest thing is that rear bar, we just had to get rid of it,” Gordon said. “We did that. We cut the chain. Our car really started coming to us right then. We finally got some drive-off (the corners).”
While that allowed Gordon to gain some handling and much needed speed, he was still the first car one-lap down and in 13th-place. So, without a yellow flag, Gordon had no way to make up that much ground on leader Denny Hamlin, who dominated the first 275 laps by leading 202 of them.
That’s when a few raindrops started to fall and the sixth and final caution came out on lap 275. And with rain throughout the area and the race well past it’s halfway point, it left drivers and crew chiefs with a difficult decision. If they decided to pit, it was possible that rain could end the race and cost them good finishes. If they stayed out, they would be left on older tires and more or less sitting ducks for those who pitted and took fresh tires.
Gordon, of course, had nothing to lose, being a lap down. He, along with Bowyer, Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth, were among those to pit when the yellow first waved. Then, once it became apparent the race would return to green-flag racing without a red flag, Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. each hit pit road, but had to restart back in the field, which put Hamlin in 15th-place.
Not pitting at all during the yellow was Busch, who apparently told crew chief Dave Rogers on the radio that he wanted to come in for tires. That left Busch, who didn’t have a great car to begin with, losing valuable places and points to Gordon.
“We missed it, plain and simple,” said Busch, who received some quick words from team owner Joe Gibbs before climbing out of the car when the race was over. “He told me to handle it the right way. There’s no right way to handle the situation.”
With the brief shower giving Gordon new life, he worked his way through the field to put himself in the Chase picture as Busch struggled to stay in the top-20. But with one more pit stop to go, Gordon’s job wasn’t done yet.
Busch pitted for fresh tires with 66 laps to go, but was hurt a bit when his right rear tire had a loose lug nut, extending the stop by a couple of seconds.
Gordon pitted with 42 laps to go, and when he returned to the track, he had work to do again. He passed several cars coming up through the field, and with ten laps to go, put himself in Chase position when he passed Mark Martin to reach second-place. That, combined with Busch’s 16th-place finish, and Gordon’s bonus point for leading at least one lap, allowed Gordon to make up the 13 points he needed at the race’s beginning.
And now, the Chase is a new beginning for Gordon.
“To me, after you have that kind of effort, fall back, then come up there and finish second, almost win the race … I don’t see any reason why we can’t go over these next ten races and be a real threat for the championship,” Gordon said. “I don’t care where we are going to start in the points. We are in it.”
Bowyer feels his team will be a threat for the championship, too.
“To win a championship, it would be pretty big,” Bowyer said. “Jimmie seems like he has a blast doing it. I promise you I could throw a better party than him. I might not survive it, but we would have a lot of fun.”
Bowyer’s two wins give him six bonus points in the standings. With the standings reset for the top-12, Hamlin will start on top with four wins, while Stewart, Johnson and Brad Keselowski will be tied for second, with Greg Biffle and Bowyer tied for fifth, then Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. tied for seventh each with one win. Finally, Martin Truex, Jr., Kevin Harvick, Kahne and Gordon are tied for ninth. Kahne, with his two wins, and Gordon with his one win, do not get bonus points as they were the wild-card qualifiers.
Followng Bowyer, Gordon and Martin in the top-10 Saturday night were Stewart in fourth, Kenseth, Jeff Burton, Keselowski, Ryan Newman, Biffle and Harvick.
Next weekend, the Sprint Cup Series travels to Chicagoland Speedway for the GEICO 400, race No. 1 in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Coverage is scheduled to start at 1:00pm EDT (Noon CDT) on ESPN, with race coverage following at 2:00pm EDT.Share this article