When you're racing at Talladega Superspeedway, all's well that ends well -- if it ends well.
That, of course, is so much easier said than done. Jeff Gordon has been on both sides of some crazy finishes at the 2.66-mile track, so he knew to take what it gave him during Sunday's Good Sam Road Side Assistance 500 and get the heck out of Alabama as fast as he legally could afterward.
Much of the 43-car field got wadded up during a massive last-lap wreck set off when Tony Stewart, then the race leader, turned across the hood of an onrushing Michael Waltrip in a futile attempt to hang onto the lead. Gordon successfully avoided it. He skillfully maneuvered his No. 24 Chevrolet through the carnage, emerging on the other side of the smoke and twisted metal to finish second in the race behind winner Matt Kenseth.
It was an impressive performance. It also was very lucky.
"It wasn't looking really good there when we took the white flag [signifying one lap to go]. I'll be honest," Gordon told reporters after it was all over.
While everyone's being honest, it should be noted that as fortunate as Gordon was on Sunday, his chances to claim the fifth championship of his storied career in this 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup likely were dashed nearly a month ago. That's when the throttle in his car stuck and caused him to wreck when he was running fourth late in the Chase-opening race at Chicagoland Speedway.
Despite Sunday's latest heroics, that much is clearer after Talladega than it was before Talladega.
This isn't meant to disparage Gordon's courageous finish, or the fact that since Chicagoland he's been on a serious roll -- finishing third at New Hampshire and second at Dover in addition to Sunday's runner-up effort. In fact, going back to the last seven races, the 35th he was forced to settle for at Chicagoland is the only race in which he's finished lower than third.
That's the kind of roll that often nets drivers championships. But if there is one thing Talladega taught Gordon again on Sunday, it's that under the points format adopted last year one bad finish like what Gordon suffered in Chicago is enough to finish off your Chase hopes.
Talladega was the last, best chance Gordon had for gobbling up ground on those ahead of him in big chunks. While it's true he jumped four more spots to sixth in the standings as a result of Sunday's finish, he gained exactly five points on Chase leader Brad Keselowski and remains a whopping 42 behind him with only six races remaining.
Gordon very well may get to as high as fourth before this Chase is over. He's only six points out of fourth now, trailing Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne. He's only two points out of fifth, currently held by Clint Bowyer. Gordon might even climb as high as third, a position currently occupied by Denny Hamlin (who is 23 points behind Keselowski and 19 ahead of Gordon).
But what Gordon really needed at Talladega was to emerge from the smoke and twisted metal while the trio of Chase leaders -- Jimmie Johnson and Hamlin, in addition to Keselowski -- got caught up in it.
And while they were among the 25 cars involved in the wreck on the final lap, Keselowski, Hamlin and Johnson managed to escape Alabama without experiencing the true disasters Gordon needed to really climb back into the hunt.
Johnson finished 17th, so Gordon gained 15 points on his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. But Hamlin salvaged an 11th-place finish and Keselowski came home in seventh -- so Gordon's gains on those two were negligible.
And the odds of all three of those suffering a horrible finish on the types of tracks that remain over the final six races are now reduced dramatically. Their teams are too good, their skills too great.
Not giving up
This doesn't mean Gordon should or will give up, of course. He's going to keep pushing, hoping for the improbable if not impossible.
He did admit that it was disappointing not to gain more on the leader with Sunday's latest second-place performance -- his fourth such finish in the last six races overall.
"After [Sunday], it's a little frustrating. Our team is doing a great job. We've been performing really, really well," Gordon said. "We can sit there and really get mad about what happened in Chicago, but the reality of it is all we can do is go each and every week and keep trying to put ourselves in position to win and get top-fives.
"It's not over yet. It is certainly not over yet. So we'll see what happens. If we keep doing this, I really think we might have a shot at it."
It would be quite a story, on par with Tony Stewart's unlikely run to the championship last season. But at this point, the reality is that it would take Gordon beginning to turn those second-place finishes into race victories -- and for those still well in front of him to each run into some terrible problem of their own. In other words, no matter what Gordon does he would still need serious help.
Time is running out, and the caliber of the teams in front of him make that highly unlikely now that the track most likely to create chaos and multiple poor finishes for the guys in front is in everyone's rear-view mirror.
Nonetheless, it's still going to be fun watching Gordon hustle to try to catch up. It has been so far.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.