Two facts became abundantly clear over the weekend.
One: Elliott Sadler is displaying the combination of momentum, determination and consistently fast race cars required of a champion. He'll likely claim this year's Nationwide Series championship, thereby earning himself another shot in the Sprint Cup Series.
*Video: Sadler wins at Iowa
Two: Whether assisted by divine intervention of a thunderstorm, a poor decision (or poor luck) of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, or a combination of all of the above, Jeff Gordon drove his way back into the 2012 Cup championship discussion on Sunday at Pocono Raceway.
*Video: Gordon beats rain, field and bad luck in Pocono
Sadler won the U.S. Cellular 250 at Iowa Speedway on Saturday night, claiming his fourth Nationwide victory of the season and increasing his series points lead over Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon from one point to 18. Yes, it is true that 13 races are still left and at least four other drivers remain within reasonable striking distance of the championship. But it was impressive how Sadler bounced back after a penalty on the final restart -- one that Sadler and his team vigorously protested -- arguably cost him a victory one week earlier at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"We thought we should have won that race," he said.
Then, there was Gordon in Pocono. He was running sixth on the final restart when literally all hell broke loose. First, Johnson was the victim either of a flat tire or simply of overdriving his No. 48 Chevrolet into Turn 1 -- depending on whom was doing the explaining -- and he took out himself and several other top contenders. Gordon cruised by on the bottom of the race track in his No. 24 Chevy and claimed his first win of the season when the skies opened up shortly thereafter with a violent thunderstorm that ended the race.
Suddenly, as a result, the four-time Cup champion is in position to perhaps become this year's Tony Stewart.
Sadler has been telling anyone and everyone that he wants to accomplish two goals this season, and they are intertwined. He wants to win a Nationwide championship and he wants to drive well enough to convince someone, but not just anyone, on the Cup side to give him another chance behind the wheel.
The way he's been rolling in his No. 2 Chevy on the Nationwide side is helping him make progress on both fronts simultaneously.
|3.||R. Stenhouse Jr.||730||-21|
|4.||S. Hornish Jr.||717||-34|
Sadler has made no secret of the fact that he yearns to get back to Cup, where he drove full-time from 1999 through 2010. But he wants to do it on his terms, where he drives a competitive car for someone who believes in his ability to get to Victory Lane.
Truthfully, there had been reasons to doubt that on not only the Cup side but also in Nationwide until this season. Sadler owns three Cup victories, but has not won in that series since capturing two races and finishing a strong ninth in the final point standings while driving for Robert Yates in 2004. And, in his 11 other seasons as a full-time Cup driver, he finished better than 20th in points only one other time -- 13th while also driving for Yates in 2005.
So, in 2011, having completed his contract with Richard Petty Motorsports and with no viable full-time Cup rides presenting themselves, Sadler made the bold move to take a step back so he could perhaps eventually proceed forward. He took a full-time Nationwide ride with Kevin Harvick, Inc. and went on to finish second in the points standings behind champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -- but one thing obviously was missing. He didn't win any races.
Even Harvick, who closed the doors to his shop at the end of last season, noted that Sadler needed to prove he could win races this season -- after Sadler and KHI's Nationwide program had shifted over to RCR.
And that's just what Sadler has done, rejuvenating his career in the process. He's consistently run up front and has proven -- four times now -- that he knows how to close to the deal. It's time that others step up and take notice, and give him another shot in Cup. Penske Racing, are you listening?
Meanwhile, just when everyone was about to write Gordon off in what has been an incredibly hard-luck year, he wins a rain-shortened event and vaults to 13th in the points standings with just five races remaining before the Chase to the Sprint Cup cutoff.
That moved him smartly into position to claim the second of the two Chase wild-card berths that go to the top two drivers in points outside the top 10 who have the most wins.
|Wild card standings|
Right now, Kasey Kahne owns the first wild-card berth and will be difficult to supplant. He's not only 11th in points but also owns two victories.
It had been widely believed that Gordon would need two wins to get in as well -- but that was when he was 17th in points just two weeks ago. Now he's 13th and as long as none of the other one-time winners this season who are currently living outside the top 10 along with him win again, he's in.
That group would include Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano -- none of whom have run as well lately as Gordon.
Gordon still needs to keep his eye on Carl Edwards, who sits 12th in points but has yet to win. But now he's on Edwards' heels in the points and has the upper hand with one win in his fire suit pocket to none for Edwards. Plus, now Gordon is headed to one of his favorite race tracks in the road course at Watkins Glen, where he has won four times in his career.
Suddenly a hard-luck season is looking like it has begun to turn.
And, in a season when no single team has looked dominant, when no driver has more than three wins thus far, and with Stewart's remarkable Chase run to a championship last year fresh in everyone's minds, who knows? Stewart hadn't won a single race and barely qualified for the Chase last year, and then won five of the 10 Chase races to edge Edwards for the title in exciting, almost inexplicable, fashion.
"You can't ever give up. It doesn't matter where you're at," Gordon said Sunday. "Sometimes when you're going through a tough stretch, you start to lose confidence and doubt that it's ever going to happen. But we knew our cars have been good and the team is good. ... So this feels good. It's that little boost that we need to get through these next five races. Don't count us out."
Gordon has had fast race cars all year and, on Sunday at Pocono, his luck finally turned. It could be an omen that he's poised to make a real run at becoming this year's Stewart.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Jeff Gordon
- Elliott Sadler