Still a contender: Gordon serves notice

Someone forgot to tell Jeff Gordon that Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson are supposed to be waging an epic battle for the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship all by themselves. And if Sunday afternoon is any indication, Gordon is conceding nothing in this year’s title fight.

At tiny Martinsville Speedway on Sunday, Gordon drove his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet underneath Kenseth with 21 laps to go to score a dramatic victory in the caution-plagued Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500. In the process, he kept himself at least somewhat relevant in the title fight.

With his 88th career Sprint Cup victory, Gordon broke a 32-race winless streak and won his eighth race at the 0.526-mile Virginia short track, although this was his first victory here in eight years.

Kenseth finished second ahead of Clint Bowyer, 2012 series champ Brad Keselowski and Johnson.

In truth, Gordon’s season has been something of a sidebar to the fight between Kenseth and Johnson. All year long, Kenseth and Johnson have been the two drivers to beat in the Cup Series, winning 12 races between them, while Gordon had none before today. The duo left the seventh race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup dead even in points, with Gordon now third, 27 markers in arrears.

And he’s not giving up. Not by a long shot.

“All we can do, I think, is go out and perform at our best and just see what happens,” said Gordon. “The nice thing is that we’re not doing the points racing right now, we’re just going out and just trying to go out and win races and not think about protecting anything. You know, it’s just go and give it everything we’ve got.”

Make no mistake about it, the 42-year-old Gordon has a new energy and a new level of determination this year, and it showed on Sunday, as he ran down the dominant Kenseth and passed him the closing laps to finally seal the victory for himself and team owner Rick Hendrick.

Gordon, of course, was added to the Chase field at the last minute after NASCAR’s investigation of the finish at Richmond International Raceway in the 26th and final race of the regular season.

Seeded 13th of 13 drivers at the start of the Chase, Gordon now has one victory, three top-five and five top-10 finishes in the seven Chase races run so far. His sense of energy and renewed enthusiasm is palpable these days and it showed with his late-race drive.

Gordon said now that the race victories don’t happen as easily as they once did, he appreciates them much more.

“You never know when that next one is going to come,” Gordon said. “I understand that better today than I ever have, just because the wins haven’t come as often, and it seems like even when we’ve had race cars capable of winning we’ve been close. Just the little small circumstances could be all it takes sometimes to keep you out of victory lane, and it makes you realize how hard it is to line all those stars up to make it happen.”

Still, through an erratic season, Gordon, crew chief Alan Gustafson and the rest of the team hung in there. Martinsville was a tangible reward for their perseverance.

“Sometimes guys make it look easy, and it’s not. I can promise you that,” Gordon said. “I think what’s even tougher is when you’re not getting the wins and just over time it just starts to accumulate, and it’s hard to keep the confidence in what you’re doing. Each individual on the team as well as together as a team. That’s what I think I’m most proud of is that we’ve been able to stick together and maintain a great working relationship to know that just keep on our path and it’ll come.”

With the results starting to show — and Gordon up from 13th in points to third — racing each week has become a decidedly better experience.

“Now things have really been coming our way, and the momentum is there, and confidence is there,” Gordon said. “The race cars are a lot of fun to drive, and just going to the racetrack right now is a lot of fun, and that makes a big difference.”

For his part, Gustafson was optimistic about the stretch run, too.

“I think we’re in it, and I think that Jimmie and Matt, both of those teams have been incredible all year,” said Gustafson. “I don’t expect anything different than that. But I do feel like it’s plausible. I think we can go win these next three races, and I think that anything can happen. If we go win these races, it’s not like they’ve got to finish 20th. Those guys go and finish 10th, we’re going to have a show at Homestead. … It’s not going to be easy, never is easy, it’s not going to be easy for them, either.”

NOTES: Dale Earnhardt Jr. was fast in practice but was disappointed to finish eighth in his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Earnhardt was one of many drivers frustrated with how difficult it was to pass.

“We worked really, really hard all day and just … we had a decent car and didn’t do everything exactly like we needed to,” said Earnhardt, who fell to seventh in points. “It was a pretty good car, maybe a fifth-place car. This tire was a struggle for us last year, and the last time we were here and we felt like we made a lot of good gains on it in practice and had some good speed. I don’t know what we have to do to get that extra bit.”

Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson had a brief and heated encounter on pit road after the race, with Biffle blaming Johnson for tearing off the rear fascia of his Roush Fenway Racing Ford. The only problem was that apparently Biffle had the wrong Hendrick Motorsports driver, as the consensus was that the damaging contact came from Dale Earnhardt Jr., not Johnson.

Third-place finisher Clint Bowyer caught runner-up Matt Kenseth with a couple of laps to go, but Bowyer admitted he didn’t make an aggressive move to pass because Kenseth is racing for a championship and he isn’t.

“I was pretty gingerly going in because I had been loose in and I didn’t want to drive it in any harder than I did getting into (turn) three because that one point didn’t mean nearly as much as it could have cost him,” Bowyer said of Kenseth. “But a fellow Toyota driver, we owe it to each other to do that, and certainly it wasn’t for the win. If it was for the win he would have probably got out of the way because I’m pretty hungry. But that wasn’t a big deal.”

Jeff Gordon’s victory meant that Chevrolet captured the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Manufacturers’ Cup Championship. It was the 11th in a row and 37th overall for Chevrolet.

Brad Keselowski, the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, backed up his victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway of two weeks ago with a solid fourth-place finish. His No. 2 Penske Racing Ford was one of the few cars that didn’t suffer some serious dings and dents on the afternoon.

“You’re not gonna win these races with your car all tore to hell and you’re probably not gonna win these races without putting a scratch on your car, so you’ve got to have a balance of both and mine is probably right where it needs to be,” said Keselowski. “We just need a little bit more speed.”