He promised his team – and his fans – that he wouldn’t go down without a fight. And fight he and his No. 24 team did, with a second-place finish at Richmond International Raceway to snag a ticket to the 2012 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup.
With 12 points separating Gordon from 12th-place Kyle Busch entering the 26th and final race of the regular season, Gordon qualified his car second. He then led two of the first 10 laps of Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 before his car began to fade.
Then, Gordon was haunted by gremlins. His ill-handling car developed brake issues. He then thought there was a vibration. And then the oil temperature shot up to 300 degrees as he dropped to 17th on Lap 120. Seven circuits later, Denny Hamlin put the No. 24 car one lap down.
But then luck turned in Gordon’s favor. During the fourth caution, the crew cut the chain on the car’s sway bar in an effort to help Gordon’s handling. He first appeared defeated while the race was delayed by rain.
“We just missed it,” Gordon said. “It happens.”
He then joined his crew on the pit box during the ensuing red-flag period and used the time to assess the situation. He relied on crew chief Alan Gustafson and the wealth of information from the other Hendrick Motorsports squads – and their satellites at Stewart-Haas Racing – to devise a plan that would put him back in the hunt.
“They were pretty confident that was going to get us close to our teammates,” Gordon said. “(Gustafson) was right. I still had a little doubt in him, though.”
Gordon knew the decision was drastic – but necessary.
After the race resumed 52 minutes later, Gordon’s car “came to life.” Although he restarted 26th on Lap 156, one lap off the pace and 14 positions behind Busch, the team continued to adjust the car. Gordon circumvented traffic over the next 97 laps and inevitably put himself into 17th and in position to earn the beneficiary position for the next caution.
Then Gordon’s good fortune kept coming.
On the sixth caution, Gordon was able to pit and restarted on the lead lap with 118 circuits remaining. While the No. 24 had fresh tires, Busch’s team was one of seven cars that elected to stay out on the track. The decision proved futile. Busch was forced to pit 42 laps later and with issues in the pits, offered Gordon enough cushion to close the deal.
Gordon gained on the competition and inevitably closed in for a second-place finish to earn his seventh consecutive Chase berth and his eighth appearance overall. The team’s accomplishment also enabled all four Hendrick Motorsports teams the opportunity to compete for the championship.
“We’re in the Chase, damn it,” Gordon said. “Oh man we’ll kick their a** in the Chase with that (expletive) effort.”
And what an effort it was. For Gordon and the No. 24 crew to soldier back from being 26th and off the lead lap proved their determination and teamwork.
“I felt like I won the race tonight,” Gordon said. “When that was over, they told me I was in the Chase, we made it, I mean, I was ecstatic. I was going nuts.
“To me, after you have that kind of effort, fall back, then come up there and finish second, almost win the race, make it in by one point, man, I don’t see any reason why we can’t go over these next 10 races and be a real threat for the championship.”
Certainly, that’s possible for a driver with Gordon’s talent. However, at 41, that might be a tall order.
Still, with the fight that the he and his team displayed to come from 17th five races ago to earn the final wild-card spot at Richmond, Gordon proved that he might just be ready for the battle of his life and a shot at a fifth championship.