There is vindication in this for Jeff Gordon. And right now, a fighting chance at a fifth Sprint Cup title.
And that’s all he can ask for. Gordon steadfastly asserted that he belonged in the Chase for the Sprint Cup before and after he was ordained a 13th seed in a precedent-shattering and controversy-generating proclamation by NASCAR chairman Brian France.
Even though his attempts to race his way into NASCAR’s 10-race playoffs had been deemed unfairly damaged by the contrivances of three teams at the final regular-season race at Richmond, Gordon’s inclusion raised the collective hackles of NASCAR’s anti-24 and 24-neutral masses. Tradition and integrity were questioned even though NASCAR is renowned for constancy only in change.
Three races into the Chase, Gordon is no longer a wild card with an asterisk. He’s a wild card with a chance, one of a select few, seemingly, with a chance of chasing down the breakaway pack of Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson (who is eight points back) and Kyle Busch (12).
“We’re thrilled we got the opportunity to be in it,” Gordon said after qualifying 14th for the Hollywood Casino 400 (coverage begins Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN and WatchESPN). “We felt like we earned that right, and we’re thankful to NASCAR and all those that make those decisions to get us in it.
“And we’ll go to work and continue to try to look good every weekend, showing we deserved to be in it and be a real threat.”
Gordon pulled into a points tie for fourth place with Kevin Harvick — who has two wins this season to Gordon’s none — by finishing fourth last week at Dover. He opened the Chase with a sixth-place result at Chicago, jumping to seventh in points. Gordon was leading at New Hampshire — and for 36 laps total before overshooting his pit stall during a stop and slumping to 15th.
“I made a mistake at New Hampshire that cost us,” Gordon said. “Other than that, we’ve gained on everybody in the Chase except for the top three guys.”
Gordon has won at every venue remaining in the Chase but considers Kansas, where he was once dominant, “one of our weaker tracks.”
“If we can perform well here, I think it really puts us in a great position to go gain some points at a few other tracks,” said Gordon, who won the first two Sprint Cup races at Kansas but has been no better than 10th in the past four races.
Even if he does exceed expectations at Kansas, Gordon said the breakaway group of Kenseth-Johnson-Busch will be difficult to catch. Those drivers finished fourth (Kenseth), fifth (Johnson) and 25th (Busch) in the final practice.
“Those guys have been performing very, very well,” Gordon said. “If they don’t have some issues or have a really bad day, then nobody is going to catch them. We’re not wishing that upon them. It’s just that we have to go out and do our jobs.”
Busch, who has an average finish of 22.4 in 12 starts at Kansas, did have issues Friday — qualifying 18th — and a really bad day Saturday, crashing in a morning practice session and being forced to a backup No. 18 Toyota. He will start in the back of the 43-car field with his brother, and fellow championship contender, Kurt Busch, who will use a backup No. 78 Chevrolet after also slamming the wall in morning practice. Kurt Busch lost control after it appeared that Marcos Ambrose bobbled in front of him.
Chase contenders having problems wasn’t an isolated incident Saturday.
Kenseth spun on cold tires late in the morning session re-entering the track as Joe Gibbs teammate Kyle Busch blazed past in his backup car. Kenseth managed to strike nothing with the No. 20 Toyota, however. The 2003 series champion cited markedly cooler conditions Saturday and a lack of grip in the new multizone tire for the spate of spins. He stopped short of predicting mayhem for Sunday, but not that short.
“You never know when someone is going to lose control of their car,” he said. “They’re pretty on edge. Everyone is pretty free, not a lot of grip. Kind of unpredictable. That tire’s been like that the whole time. You get in colder conditions, it brings up the speeds but also isn’t as forgiving because you don’t slide around in the rubber as much. You’ve got good grip, and then all of a sudden when it’s gone, it’s just gone. You can’t catch it.”
Johnson, who recovered from a spin early in the first practice Friday and an oil cooler problem to qualify third, had said before those misadventures that the leaders are fallible. And catchable.
Hinton: JJ’s greatness undeniable
Quit your bellyaching, NASCAR Nation. Ed Hinton has some advice for all you Jimmie Johnson haters: Appreciate his greatness for what it is, and just enjoy the ride.
“I think there is enough racing left,” he said. “If somebody gets hot and the others cool off, it’s 30-something points back to fourth. The numbers change a little when you’re chasing three people instead of one.
“But if we all start running seventh or eighth and somebody gets hot, they can make up points. I still think it’s possible, largely because there are seven races left. It starts shifting dramatically as we get deeper into the season, but with seven left there are still a lot of opportunities for those guys.”
Harvick appears to have an opportunity before him after leading practice Friday and earning his first pole in six years. The two-time Nationwide Series champion apparently has felt outside of consideration as a Cup champion since the Chase began, and seemed uninterested in making any statements about whether he could make a race of it, beginning tomorrow or at any point.
“To be honest with you, [I] walked into media day this year and there was two people standing in line to conduct interviews, so from day one of this year, everybody has kind of written us off,” he said. “We’re three races into the Chase and it kind of is what it is, so we’ve done our thing and put ourself in position to just go out and race and enjoy it.”
On that, he and Gordon agree.
“We’re way ahead of the game right now,” Gordon said. “We were four weeks ago not in it, now we’re in it and we’re up to fifth or tied for fourth. We’re pleased with where we’re at. We’re not going to complain about where we’re at at all.”