Jeff Gordon was right on the money following Sunday night's race.
After trying desperately to pass Denny Hamlin on the final restart to snare his second win of the year and vastly increased odds of making NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup with just Richmond this weekend left before the cutoff, Gordon admitted he should have played rough. A little bumper car action - Gordon's No. 24 nose to the Hamlin's No. 11 rear as the pair entered turn three for the final time - would have been the championship-qualifying move, he lamented. The Chase, Gordon said, was that important.
But Gordon didn't hamstring Hamlin to the outer groove on that final lap, and wound up second, nearly three-tenths of a second behind. It was the respectful move and the professional move. But it was also the move that should pretty much solidify Gordon missing NASCAR's championship fight.
Let's face it: Jeff Gordon stands more of a chance of finishing with more career championships than Jimmie Johnson than either 1) winning at Richmond or 2) beating Kyle Busch by 13 points (Busch holds the tiebreaker if they tie). He's just not the Jeff Gordon of 1998, when winning was something Gordon did more than anyone in the modern era, save for Richard Petty.
Instead, this is 2012 - a time when Gordon has been to Richmond 23 straight times since coming home with a race trophy. He's led just 11 of 1,600 laps in the past four events, and led 144 in 2010 to only come up short in second place to, yep, Kyle Busch.
It won't help either that Gordon was nowhere near the pace of the leaders during the series' first visit in April, dropping from sixth to 15th inside of the first 30 laps. He would later cut a tire amid contact with Aric Almirola and never covered, finishing 23rd. Gordon said Sunday night at Atlanta that his team won't bring back the same setup this time around - the obvious move, really - but his team won't exactly be in a good spot to try something new. Track practice time at Richmond is always limited, plus it happens during the heat of the afternoon on Friday in conditions far from what the race will be contested in.
Meanwhile, Richmond has been the personal playground of Kyle Busch - a track where he is batting .270 in the win column (4 total) and has finished 12 of his 15 Sprint Cup races there inside the top-5. Busch, who has never finished off the lead lap at Richmond, also won there in April after capitalizing on the questionable penalty call Carl Edwards was handed for jumping a restart.
All of those numbers are the more haunting for Gordon, as they prove Gordon's case is more like those drivers with a must-win situation (Marcos Ambrose, Joey Logano, and Ryan Newman) than as a guy who could feasibly sneak in with Busch struggling some. Simply put: Kyle Busch never struggles at Richmond.
Every lap of NASCAR racing has more variables than a blackjack hand, and one of those could sneak up to bust Kyle Busch Saturday night. But smart players know Busch is playing with the house on his side and Jeff Gordon and others have likely watched their championship dreams fall to the dealer's pocket.
HOT: I like statistical oddities, so I've been following Paul Menard's ultimately unimportant streak of late. Menard, in the 18 races since Martinsville in the spring has finished no worse than 22nd, yet no better than 9th. Until, that is, Sunday night at Atlanta.
Menard drove to an 8th-place finish, and now sits 15th in the point standings. He won't make the Chase, but it's still been a respectable year for NASCAR's best sideburns. Hooray?
NOT: Carl Edwards, obviously. It's disappointing to see him with such a terrible shot to make NASCAR's championship fight. Ryan Newman, too. That said, it's proving one that even in the age of start-and-parkers, NASCAR's almost-elite class stretches almost to nearly 20th in the point standings. There's some real competition in this sport.
HOT: You know how we know Martin Truex Jr. is driving a competitive Michael Waltrip Racing car? The guy was plain ticked off with his fourth-place finish Sunday night. It wasn't that long ago MWR was a bigger threat to miss races than win them.
NOT: Tony Stewart is sure limping in to the Chase, isn't he? His best finish in the last four races is 19th at Watkins Glen - the day he wrecked from second place.
HOT:If someone - anyone - says Atlanta Motor Speedway needs a repave before we reach 2022 on the calendar, please alert me so I can organize a mob that will prevent any such destruction of what may have become NASCAR's best race track.
Complain if you'd like about long green flag runs, but I'll disagree. The fact that Denny Hamlin made up an eight-second gap between pit cycles is all you need to know in how drivers have been returned control and responsibility of managing their race cars. That should happy at every track on the circuit, though I'm afraid Jeff Gordon is right in his comments that many tracks have been repaved almost too perfectly.
NOT: Kevin Harvick's personality can be awfully grating at times, can it not? I understand he was misinformed about the Brad Keselowski/water bottle issue, but he wins no favors in the lack of respect he shows Keselowski. Good for The Show, maybe, but it otherwise just looks immature.
HOT: Give a call to Joey Logano for gutting out a 19th-place finish Sunday night after fighting a stomach bug most of the weekend. He was obviously rewarded nicely with the announcement that he would find his way
NEUTRAL: Elliott Sadler, currently a real threat to win the Nationwide Series title, will be leaving his Richard Childress Racing team at the end of the year. No, Sadler doesn't appear have a Sprint Cup ride lined up, but he reportedly will join the Nationwide Series effort ran out of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable next year. On the surface, this move looks questionable. However, it's not hard to see that the Childress grandsons - Austin and Ty Dillon - are the future of the storied RCR team. Maybe Sadler's move is more of a preventative measure to avoid being brushed aside at RCR in a year or two?
HOT: Danica Patrick finished 29th. That's not impressive, incredible or worthy of breathless in-race updates. ESPN, for the second race in a row, has respected that. Kudos to them - though it only revs up the conspiracy engine that GoDaddy was paying FOX early in the season to show Patrick relentlessly during Sprint Cup races. Otherwise, is there another explanation?
FINAL: Saturday at Richmond has the chance to be a NASCAR race on par with Homestead in terms of how compelling it is. It also has a chance - if Kyle Busch is on his normal game - of being rather dull. Regardless, I'm eagerly waiting how the scenarios play out - especially ones involving teammates. Every driver knows that Busch, Gordon, Newman, Logano and Ambrose all can seal their championship fates with a win. They also know that having more teams make the Chase can only be good news for the company. What's worth more to a Chase-locked driver - 3 points in the Chase for a win, or letting your Chase-edge teammate get in with a win?
I'm not saying team orders will be involved Saturday night, but there very well could be some interesting coincidences among positions as the race wears on. I'm not going to miss it.