Jeff Gordon continued his magical season on Sunday at Dover International Speedway, holding off Brad Keselowski and winning for the fourth time and first time in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Sunday’s AAA 400 was anything but magical, however, for AJ Allmendinger, Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle and Aric Almirola — the four drivers who failed to advance out of the final event of the three-race Chase Challenger Round, and won’t be championship-eligible when NASCAR arrives at Kansas Speedway next weekend.
Moving on to the Contender Round but unhappy nonetheless was Kevin Harvick, who led 223 laps at Dover and had easily the dominant car before a flat left-front tire on Lap 252 of 400 sent the No. 4 Chevy to pit road and left Harvick the last car the lead lap.
Restarting 21st on Lap 261, Harvick made minimal progress in finding his way back to the front and ultimately finished 13th, the first driver one lap down.
Gordon passed Keselowski to take the lead for the first time on Lap 306, and cycled back into the top spot following a scheduled green flag pit stop on Lap 329. Despite Keselowski not letting Gordon out of his sights in the closing laps, there was no catching the four-time Sprint Cup Series champion when it counted.
"I don’t know what happened to Kevin Harvick," said Gordon, who notched his fifth career win at The Monster Mile but first since 2001. "It was unfortunate for him. He was the class of the field. We were tuning on it to try to keep even with him. When I saw him go out, I knew we could compete with the No. 2 car (Keselowski)."
A visibly disappointed Harvick said after the race that a lug nut got lodged between the left-front wheel and the brake rotor, knocking the valve stem out and causing the tire to go down.
"Crazy," Harvick said. "Just handing out early Christmas presents to people for winning races that we should be winning, but all in all our Budweiser guys did a great job."
With Harvick out of the picture, Keselowski moved into the lead, but the Team Penske driver was unable to hold off Gordon, whose car was faster on longer runs.
"The No. 2 was really good on short runs, but we could run him down," Gordon said. "Of course he made us work for it there at the end because he was so good on short runs and he got to me. I was really, really tight in traffic there at the end. I didn’t know if we were going to pull it off."
The final 140 laps were run under green, as the race was slowed by only five cautions — three for debris, and for separate incidents involving Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and J.J. Yeley, respectively.
"I think Kevin Harvick was probably the guy to beat and it was a shame to see him have that misfortune," said Keselowski, who led twice for a total of 78 laps. "But Jeff was incredible on the long runs. It’s a shame. I thought we were going to win this one. I think maybe with a yellow at the end, things would have turned out differently, but I’ve got to give a lot of credit to Jeff and his team — they had a great car, too."
The 12 drivers in the title hunt entering next weekend’s Contender Round opener at Kansas are Keselowski, Joey Logano, Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Gordon, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne.
The championship standings have been reset, with each of the 12 title contenders carrying 3,000 points to Kansas City.
How does Gordon, who has been one of the strongest drivers all season, feel about his shot at a fifth championship after Sunday’s win?
"Oh, I think this is huge," he said. "We came in here with a little bit of extra pressure because we weren’t guaranteed to be in (the Contender Round). If we hadn’t finished where we were running at New Hampshire last week, it would have been kind of an easy day for us. But all we did was focus on executing as a team and trying to win this race and nothing else.
"It wasn’t about the points; it wasn’t about just squeezing by to get to the next round. It was about making a statement. I don’t know how you make a bigger statement than what this team just did right there."
VIDEO: Kevin Harvick’s race goes awry with flat tire at Dover