It’s been often said that all NASCAR Sprint Cup teams face adversity – but the great ones overcome it.
I am not sure you will ever see a better example of that than in the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway.
In their last chance to make the NASCAR Chase For The Sprint Cup, Jeff Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports team started the 400-lap race so horribly that they were all but written off as entries.
The handling on Gordon’s Chevrolet was non-existent. It was loose on entry into the turns and simply plowed its way through as its driver fought to keep control, lap after lap.
At one point Gordon was a lap down and it’s likely even he thought his Chase hopes were dashed.
But in an improbable turn of events, Gordon found the handle on his Chevrolet, raced his way to the front, finished second and edged Kyle Busch for the final “wildcard” spot by a mere three points.
It was the kind of dramatic stuff that could well have been the subject of a movie script. Trouble is, Hollywood wouldn’t buy it.
“Went from last week to being the most disappointed I’ve ever been to finish second (at Atlanta), to the most excited I’ve ever been to finish second,” said an obviously elated Gordon. “Wow, what a race for us.
“We just flat out missed the setup at the beginning.
Luckily Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) and the engineers got together and found the tools that we could utilize to make the car better.
“The biggest thing is that rear bar, we just had to get rid of it. We did that. We cut the chain. Our car really started coming to us right then. We finally got some drive off.”
The start of the race was delayed about an hour due to rain. Gordon began on the outside of the front row but quickly fell off the pace.
Weather affected the event two more times. Rain forced a caution on lap 138. The race was set to restart on lap 150 but was called off. Then the race was red-flagged two laps later.
By that time Gordon was so far off the pace it seemed likely his Chase hopes were gone. Asked what was the problem, Gordon said, “Everything.”
“You weren’t standing at the car when I got out of the car, obviously, because I was not smiling and not happy at that rain delay, the one red flag,” Gordon said. “I was pretty ticked off that we got that far behind.
“I’ll be honest. For me as a race car driver, when you have that kind of start to the race, you don’t have a lot of hope you’re going to get it turned around.”
But, for Gordon, a turnaround is exactly what happened. Gustafson diagnosed what was wrong with the car and it returned to the fray a much different, much improved machine.
Gordon picked his way through traffic while Denny Hamlin dominated the race, leading 202 laps.
The sixth and final caution flag came out on lap 277, again for rain. Hamlin was the leader but lost the lead to Kasey Kahne six laps later.
Clint Bowyer, involved in a spin on lap 235, claimed the lead on lap 313 and held it the rest of the way to earn his second victory of the season.
Gordon was third with 10 laps to go. Gustafson knew what was at stake and told his driver to gain at least one more position before the checkered flag.
“I didn’t know what position we were in,” Gordon said. “I didn’t know what was going on.
“I knew that it looked like some guys were staying out because of how slow they were running. Alan got pretty animated when he said, ‘You got to get the 55 (Mark Martin, in second), you have to get the 55, and there was 10 to go.
“I kind of had an idea that that would get us in, but Alan didn’t ever say it.”
Meanwhile, Kyle Busch, who came into the race as the second “wildcard” candidate and was 12th in points – 12 ahead of Gordon – was suffering late in the race.
Midway through the race Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing team were in complete control. It seemed he would claim the “wildcard” sport without challenge.
When the race resumed from its red-flag period crew chief Dave Rogers was confident it would rain again and force NASCAR to call the race.
Indeed, the rain returned. Rogers told Busch not to pit while others did.
As fate would have it, NASCAR did not call the race. Busch started falling back toward the rear of the field as Gordon mounted his charge.
Busch wound up in 16th place, a lap down, and lost the “wildcard” to Gordon by three points.
Busch had little to say after the race, but kept his composure.
“Kyle did a good job with that,” Rogers said. “He took it on the chin like a man and went back to his motorhome.
“We missed it. I blew it. I feel like I let them down and it hurts.”
Rogers did congratulate Gordon and his team for getting the final Chase spot.
“I felt like I won the race tonight,” said Gordon, whose effort meant Hendrick has all four of its teams in the Chase.
“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 and almost win the race, 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.”
2012 Chase Point Standings
1) #11-Denny Hamlin [4 wins], 2012
2) #48-Jimmie Johnson [3 wins], 2009, -3
3) #14-Tony Stewart [3 wins], 2009, -3
4) #2-Brad Keselowski [3 wins], 2009, -3
5) #16-Greg Biffle [2 wins], 2006, -6
6) #15-Clint Bowyer [2 wins], 2006, -6
7) #88-Dale Earnhardt Jr. [1 win], 2003, -9
#17-Matt Kenseth [1 win], 2003, -9
9) #29-Kevin Harvick [0 wins], 2000, -12
10) #56-Martin Truex Jr. [0 wins], 2000, -12
WC1) #5-Kasey Kahne [2 wins, 11th in points], 2000, -12
WC2) #24-Jeff Gordon [1 win, 12th in points], 2000, -12