Jeff Gordon takes rain-shortened Pocono, vaults into Chase competition

Even for a sport built on conspiracy and back-room dealing, Sunday's Pocono race was an all-timer. You had Jimmie Johnson, fastest car in the field, "mysteriously" losing grip and taking out not just himself but Roush Fenway drivers Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle, as well as Pocono master Denny Hamlin. End result? Dale Earnhardt Jr. holds onto the points lead. Then you had rain coming at exactly the moment Jeff Gordon took the lead ... yeah, that's just too much of a coincidence.

Or, you know, maybe things just broke that way, and Jeff Gordon was the lucky guy in the right place at the right time. You believe what you want to believe.

Jeff Gordon is the third-winningest driver in NASCAR history, so he doesn't have to make any excuses for anything. But thanks to Mother Nature and (indirectly) Johnson, he snagged one of the most critical wins of his career, a victory that put him from embarrassing underachiever to Chase hopeful in one rainy stroke.

[Related: Ten fans injured by lightning after Pocono race]

Gordon ran a solid race but not a spectacular one, staying within sight of the leaders all afternoon long on a day that both began late and ended early because of rain. And when it became apparent that the race not only wouldn't go the distance, but would likely be over within minutes, Gordon and his team put themselves in a position to challenge for the lead.

Would the 24 have reached the front had Johnson not taken out Kenseth? Doubtful. Clean air was king at a rain-smoothed Pocono, and Hamlin, Johnson and Earnhardt all put multiple-second leads on the field whenever they got out in front.

Still, a win is a win, and this one allowed Gordon to leapfrog three (four, if you count still-winless Carl Edwards) one-win drivers and hold, at least for a week, the second wild card spot behind Kasey Kahne.

"God, I'm so excited!" Gordon said just after the race. "Don't count us out. Don't count us out."

Oh, one other thing: Saturday was Jeff Gordon's birthday, and Sunday was crew chief Alan Gustafson's. Nice birthday present, NASCAR. Coincidence? We think not!

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