Jeff Gordon came to Martinsville Speedway with one thing in mind: Win his ninth race at the historic Virginia short track and become the first driver to lock himself into one of four slots in the Championship Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
It didn’t happen.
But the day wasn’t a total loss — far from it in fact.
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Gordon finished second, just 0.345 seconds behind his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who scored a hugely popular win.
That said, Gordon led the most laps in the race and by virtue of his runner-up finish took over the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points lead ahead of Ryan Newman (-3), Joey Logano (-4), Matt Kenseth (-5) and Denny Hamlin (-7).
And since Earnhardt is not the Chase any more, his victory didn’t sew up a Championship Round spot. That means at least two drivers — and as many as four — who make it to the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in three weeks will get in on points instead of locking themselves in by race victories.
In essence, Earnhardt’s win at least doubled the number of drivers who will make the finale on points, which greatly helps Gordon’s chances at reaching the final four.
In seven Chase races so far, Gordon has one victory and three runner-up finishes, an impressive record, for sure.
"The good news is that a Chase driver did not win the race today," said Gordon. "Finishing second isn’t as big of a deal today, it’s actually really a good finish and good points day compared to if a Chase driver would have won. I wanted to get that win to get ourselves locked in, but we have two more great tracks coming up and yeah, today was a great overall effort by the whole team."
For Gordon to finish second and lead the most laps was impressive, given that he nearly threw it away with an unforced error.
Gordon pitted from the lead on Lap 191, but got caught speeding on pit road because he had his transmission in the wrong gear for the RPMs he was supposed to be running. Gordon restarted the race in 30th place in the running order and 37th on the track when lapped cars were included.
Still, he managed to come home second and take the victory.
"I’m proud of the guys," said Gordon. "We got behind. I made a big mistake on pit road and was speeding. I knew it. We had to go to the back and claw our way back up in there, so that was a great comeback and a total team effort by everybody."
And had he been able to get to Earnhardt’s bumper, Gordon would have gotten aggressive.
"I would have moved him for sure," Gordon said of Earnhardt. "There’s no doubt in my mind. Everybody who is out there racing has to weigh risk versus reward. For me, to win this race, it’s worth taking a lot of risk, even if you upset your teammate. I think everybody out there that’s not in the Chase understands that if that guy can win that race and put himself in Homestead for the championship, you can pretty much guarantee that you’re going to get the bumper or get slammed or something."
VIDEO: Jeff Gordon recovers from pit road mistake to finish second at Martinsville Speedway