RICHMOND, Va. -- It seemed as if all the misfortune that had so beset Jeff Gordon for so much of this season returned to manifest itself at the worst possible time. He worried about brakes, he worried about oil temperature, he worried about handling. The No. 24 car was such an unwieldy beast that at times it was difficult to drive down the straightaway. At the lowest point, the four-time series champion found himself the eighth driver a lap down (video).
"I'll be honest," Gordon said, "for me as a race car 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."
With good reason. He entered the weekend with so much confidence, on the heels of solid finishes in each of the past two races, and a qualifying effort that put his Chevrolet second on the grid. He started behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who let Gordon lead the first lap to grab a bonus point. To make the Chase he needed to finish 13 spots ahead of Kyle Busch, a difference he had covered at the starting line.
No question, it wasn't guaranteed, or even easy. But after finishing third and second the past two weeks, after arriving at Richmond International Raceway with so much confidence, it at least seemed possible. And then the most important race of Gordon's season began, and all that hope and exuberance evaporated into the humid Virginia night, and the all the misery that characterized the first half of this roller-coaster campaign returned in a rush. They had come so far, and here they were back at the beginning again.
"We're getting our [butts] beat in the center of corner," Gordon lamented over the radio early in the race.
"I'm having trouble going down the straightaway, it's so bad," he said later.
"Falling off really bad really quick," he added after a 51-minute rain delay, a hint of resignation echoing in his voice.
It was over, really -- or at least it seemed that way. Busch wasn't perfect, but he was good enough, and meanwhile No. 24 crew chief Alan Gustafson was left to recite to his driver the long list of car numbers between themselves and the free-pass position that would get them back on the lead lap. Of course, they thrashed away, making the car better here and there, using a caution to insert some adjustment strategies employed on teammate Jimmie Johnson's car, tweaking a rear bar. They closed the gap a little, they got back on the lead lap. It was a nice effort, one that might salve the hurt a little at the end of this long and rainy evening, but still Busch was 20 points ahead.
"Never give up, baby," spotter Eddie D'Hondt told his driver at one point. "Never give up."
They didn't. And then a driver who found his biggest break this season in a rainstorm, the deluge that swamped the end of a Pocono race that Gordon won after he skittered by some wrecking race cars and into the lead, once again received help from the heavens. Rain, again, this time just enough to bring out the caution. Gordon had nothing to lose, and pitted for tires. Busch didn't -- there was some confusion, and the decision was made too late, and they were forced to stay out.
Then suddenly it all changed, as if they were completely different cars on a completely different race track, and there was Gordon battling not just for a Chase berth but for the race victory, and there was Busch falling backward and a lap down, and there was that wild card right there for the taking.
And Gordon seized it.
"It was amazing," he said. "I still can't believe we actually did it."
It was stupefying, mesmerizing, galvanizing. Gordon started the day 12 points behind Busch for that final spot, and at his lowest was 26 behind. But after the rain, and after one driver pitted and the other didn't, the gap was trimmed to 14. Then to 10. Then to four. Then to one. And when Busch had fought his car long enough and decided to pit, and then had a loose lug nut on the stop, the advantage swung six points in Gordon's favor. The No. 24 car pitted one last time but remained a rocket, and the edge for that last wild-card spot flipped back and forth as each drivers gained or lost positions.
"I didn't know what position we were in," Gordon said. "I didn't know what was going on."
The intensity over the radio was palpable. "Go as hard as you can, bud. As hard as you can go," Gustafson commanded with 19 laps remaining. Every spot became crucial. "Got to have him. Got to have him," Gustafson barked to his driver as Gordon attempted to get past Martin Truex Jr. Busch was making up ground, too, but at one point had Johnson ahead of him. It was going to be close. Very close. But no one really know how close, or who would be in front -- until the very end, when Gordon had willed himself all the way to second behind race winner Clint Bowyer.
|7.||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||2,003|
|10.||Martin Truex Jr.||2,000|
* Gordon: Final Laps | Reaction | Press Pass | SPEED visit
The final difference was three points. "Until you're in the ground, if you're still breathing, you keep fighting," Gustafson said in the garage afterward. "I don't worry about what the perception is, what potentially could happen, what can happen. You've just got to fight."
The reaction over the radio was pure jubilation. "We made it," D'Hondt said. "We're in the Chase." Gordon's response was lost in a cacophony of celebratory screams. All the things that had gone wrong all season -- the wrecks, the breakdowns, the mystery part failures, the penalties, the cur tires for seemingly no reason -- it all suddenly reversed itself. Gordon's last-gasp effort to clinch a Chase bid was his season in a microcosm, one race that paralleled the 25 that came before it, a dizzying adventure from optimism to ebullience with a long, trying side trip through despair.
"I went to Alan. He never wavered. He was confident," Gordon said, heaping the praise upon his crew chief. "The track came to us, and Jeff did a great job," the signal-caller said. "And those guys [on Busch's No. 18 team] gave us a chance by not pitting for tires. If they wouldn't have done that, it would have been a lot harder. But I'm really proud of the guys, and we got it."
They did. And if they can battle through this season, and then a night like Saturday, and somehow remain standing -- who knows what might be possible. "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 [three points]," Gordon said, "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."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Jeff Gordon
- Kyle Busch