November 01, 2013  |   By Bruce Martin

Relaxed, Confident Gordon Unleashes Hot Streak After Late Addition To Chase

Seven weeks ago, Jeff Gordon wasn’t even in The Chase. He had missed the 12-driver cut after a late-race caution at Richmond left him just one point out of 10th in the standings, and Gordon missed on the tie-breaker because he did not have a victory.

But when NASCAR officials discovered the outcome of the race had been manipulated by a few teams, the sanctioning body made the extraordinary move of bouncing Martin Truex Jr. out of The Chase and reinstalling this year’s Brickyard 400 winner Ryan Newman into the 12th and final “Wild Card” position. It wasn’t until six days after the final race of the “regular season” that NASCAR officials also determined Gordon may have been cheated out of a Chase position and made an even more extraordinary move by adding him to the Chase as a 13th driver.

Gordon was added to the field when NASCAR officials determined Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports were involved in an attempt to manipulate the outcome of the race at Richmond. Essentially, Penske Racing tried to cut a deal with Front Row Motorsports that ordered driver David Gilliland not to pass Joey Logano. According to radio transmissions, Penske Racing “would take care of” Gilliland for cooperating.

Gordon would have earned a Chase position by finishing 10th in the standings but ultimately finished one point behind Penske driver Logano for that position. When NASCAR officials determined Penske Racing and Front Row attempted to prevent Gilliland from passing Logano, they made the unprecedented decision to add Gordon as a third Wild Card entry.

Gordon, a four-time Brickyard 400 winner and four-time Cup champion, has made the most of his second opportunity. After driving to victory last Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, he is third in the standings, 27 points out of the lead, with just three races remaining. Four-time Brickyard winner and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is tied for the top spot with this year’s winningest driver, Matt Kenseth.

The maximum number of points available in any NASCAR Sprint Cup race is 48, and there are only five drivers that are within that margin – Johnson, Kenseth, Gordon, 2003 Brickyard 400 winner Kevin Harvick and Indiana 250 Nationwide Series winner Kyle Busch as they head to Texas Motor Speedway for the AAA Texas 500 on Sunday.

Gordon knows his task to win a title is difficult. But he vows to go down swinging.

“Let's be honest; we're all alive, but right now there's two that are in it,” Gordon said. “Our job is to go to Texas and make it three. Realistically, legitimately, we've got to put pressure on those guys. Right now, other than this win (at Martinsville), they don't really feel a lot of pressure from … they're racing one another is the way I look at it, and those guys are capable of putting very solid finishes together for the remainder of the season.

“For us, we're really thinking of we've just got to go fight hard and see if we can't do something extraordinary, and it's going to take an extraordinary three weeks for that to happen. But mathematically we're certainly in it. But until we close that gap, I don't think that anybody else is really looking at it other than those two guys.”

Gordon and Johnson were among several teams that tested at Texas Motor Speedway a few weeks ago, and that could help the two Hendrick Motorsports drivers come up with a winning setup for Texas. Kenseth and his team also tested at TMS.

“We tested Texas last week, and we felt good coming out of there,” Johnsons said. “It’s going to be a great race. It’s an older surface, so that means tires are going to be important. I think we finished sixth there earlier this year and did the same at Las Vegas, which I think is similar to Texas. Either way, with three races to go it’s going to be a great battle, and I know that’s what the fans want to see. I don’t think they’ll be disappointed after Sunday.”

Ironically, the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway has produced mixed results for both Hendrick drivers. Johnson’s record at that track includes two wins, nine top-fives and 15 top-10 finishes in 20 starts. He is the defending winner of this race.

Gordon has just one win, eight top-five and 11 top-10 finishes in 25 starts at Texas. He was 14th in this race last November and 38th last April.

"We've had sort of a love-hate relationship with this track,” Gordon said. “This has always been a very challenging track and there were some years when we struggled. The last few times, though, we've been competitive, and the last time we were here, we were very competitive but had a failure. It's been a bit of love and hate. But with a lot more love recently.

"Other teams elected to test Monday, but we waited until Tuesday to begin our test, hoping there would be more rubber on the track before we started running. The track changed a lot that first day and the speeds dropped, which I think was more realistic to what we'll experience for the race. Testing allows us to come here and be better prepared for qualifying and the race. I thought the test went well, and I can't wait for this weekend's race. Right now, I'm looking forward to every race.”

It took a trip back to an old favorite for Gordon to get back to victory lane. His Martinsville win was the eighth of his career at that track, his first win of 2013 and the 88th NASCAR Cup win of his career.

“This meant so much,” Gordon said. “I feel like we've worked so hard, and many weekends we've left the racetrack looking at one another going, ‘What do we have to do?’ We've had race cars, we've had pit stops, we've had strategy. I feel like I've had days where I've done my part but just couldn't get it all lined up.

“We came into this race with a lot of confidence. This (Martinsville) is a great track for us, the 24 team, for me personally, and these guys, Alan Gustafson (crew chief) especially, they gave me a great race car all weekend long. I was a little disappointed in myself qualifying. I felt like we should have done a better job than that, but he made up for it getting that No. 2 pit stall. That was sort of a turnaround for our weekend in many ways, or just that kind of added bonus, and that paid off for us today, as well. And, of course, a great race car.”

Gordon was ecstatic after winning at Martinsville because it gives him a tangible accomplishment for the 2013 season. But while he was celebrating that win, he already had his eyes on the next race.

“I was going to say, when do I get to Texas?” Gordon said. “I'm excited about Texas. I think it's a great track for us. But it's pretty darned great for both those guys, as well. They performed very, very well again today. It's going to be tough to catch them. All we can do, I think, is go out and perform at our best and just see what happens. 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. It's just go and give it everything we've got.

“You don't get to enjoy wins for very long in this series. You always want to win a race when there's an off weekend or an offseason. It's pretty sweet to win Homestead last year because we got to enjoy that one for a while.

“But this is a special one for many reasons. It's Martinsville, that grandfather clock is very special, very historical racetrack. It's one that's been very good to me. Also memories, not so good memories, so there's a lot of meaning to winning at this track.

“I think it's just really why it's going to stick with me is because it's been a tough year. There's no better time to win races than right now, and to be able to carry that momentum … I'm so proud to be third in the points. We all want to win the championship, but I mean, from where we started early in the season, heck, where we started in this Chase, to be third in points right now, I'm very proud of that. We can't get the cart ahead of the horse; we've got to appreciate that but also take advantage of this momentum and confidence that we do have, and I can't wait to get to Texas. We just tested there, thought we had a great test, thought we ran good there earlier in the season. I mean, right now, like I said, I'm looking forward to getting to every race.

“But you try to savor and enjoy this one as much as you can until we get to the Homestead test on Tuesday. We're busy right now, so I just can't wait to get home and see my kids. My daughter, she made me cry on the phone because she told me she was crying because she wasn't able to be in victory lane. That kind of stuff makes every win special.”

Crew chief Alan Gustafson has played a major role in Gordon’s surge as the crew chief. But his positive attitude was vital after it originally looked like Gordon was out of the Chase after Richmond.

“The thing at Richmond that to me personally what happened there and barely qualifying for the Chase, for me it changes your perspective a little bit,” Gustafson said. “ Ultimately you sit there, and I don't want to say you take it for granted, because you don't take it for granted, but it is a special chance to compete for a championship at this level, and you don't know how many of those you're going to get. And for me when we didn't have it for a couple days, that was one of the most terrible feelings in the world, and I think the guys and Jeff share that sentiment, and especially in the circumstances, and when we got the opportunity, I knew … you could see it on the guys' faces, you could see it on everybody's faces, we're not going to squander this opportunity, that we have a good enough team, we have good enough cars, we have a good enough driver to go out and compete with these guys week in and week out.”

Gordon realizes he was “added” to the Chase lineup rather than automatically making the field. But he certainly isn’t going to make any apologies for how he got in because in many ways, the way he got was eliminated was cause for concern by those who want to maintain the integrity of the sport.

“I feel like we deserve to be in it,” Gordon said. “I don't like how we got in it, being an added 13th team. You can dispute that all you want. But we're certainly not going to say no, we won't take it. We wanted to be in it. We feel like we were in a position to earn our way into it, and I think that this team would have performed like this whether we were in it or not.

“I was as motivated on Wednesday between Richmond and Chicago to go out and just prove why we should have been in it and how we're going to go into the season strong as I was once I found out on Friday that we were in it. You know, to me that decision just meant that what we're going to be racing for is a championship instead of for ourselves and pride and to kind of show the critics.

"We have nothing to lose and everything to gain, so that puts us in a comfortable position as to how we approach each race. I love the team's attitude, and we've been having fun since Chicago. Less frustration and we're executing better. We're really in sync right now.

“We just want to win. We just want to win the races and win the championship. That's all that matters.”