The Racing Capital
of the World
September 06, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
Jeff Gordon has been in this position before – last year, in fact – when it comes down to one race to get into NASCAR’s “Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.”
The first winner of the Brickyard 400 way back in 1994, Gordon knows all about pressure. Gordon, the first driver to win the Brickyard 400 four times, has gone on to win four NASCAR Cup championships.
Gordon, who spent his formative years in Pittsboro, Ind., realizes he has no shot at a fifth Cup title unless he wins the Federated Auto Parts 400 on Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway – the final race of NASCAR’s “regular season.”
Gordon was up to the task last year when he finished second at Richmond and had to hope for a variety of other circumstances to happen to his competitors for him to be the last driver in the Chase through the Wild Card.
“Well, after last year, this is going to be easy,” Gordon said Thursday night at Richmond. “We went through so much last year that I think it allows us to be more relaxed, be more prepared knowing that you got to race as hard as you can till the final lap, till you cross that start/finish line. It can change every split-second.
“We've run good in recent weeks, which I'm excited about. We tested here. We didn't have a great test, I'll be honest. But I feel like we learned what not to do; made some big changes to improve the car as the test went on. That's certainly going to benefit us this weekend.
“This is certainly a track I enjoy. I think we're up for the challenge. So I’m looking forward to Saturday night.”
Gordon knows what he must do to make the 12-driver lineup in “The Chase.” He must win to get in on victories or finish six positions higher than Kurt Busch to get in on points. If Busch finishes ahead of Gordon, then Gordon must win to secure one of the two Wild Card positions.
“I think we were in a tougher spot last year than we are this year,” Gordon said. “I think the way it prepared us was knowing no matter what happens, you can't ever give up. You just have to put every bit of effort into every single moment, every lap. If the car’s off, you got to work on it. Sometimes take big swings at it. If your car's perfect, don't get complacent.
“Pit strategy, as we saw, really played out huge here the last time. Of course, the rain, all that played a factor, as well. It's going to be crazy and intense. There's so many factors that play into who's going to make it in, who's not, it’s certainly going to be an exciting race to watch and be a part of.”
Gordon is 11th in points but fourth in the Wild Card standings. He must win to get a Wild Card. Kasey Kahne has locked up one of the two Wild Cards because he has two victories and is 12th in points. Martin Truex Jr. is 13th in points with one win. This year’s winner at the Brickyard, Ryan Newman of South Bend, Ind., is 14th in the standings, but his Brickyard win has him in position to get into the Chase if he finished ahead of Truex in the points. He is only five points behind Truex entering the race Saturday night.
“I'm a lot more relaxed this year than I was last year,” Gordon said. “Last year I'd never been through that before, so I was pretty nervous. Obviously, the way the race went for us, it was probably one of the most stressful situations I've ever been through.”
To add to the drama, Gordon and his rivals had to endure a rain delay that halted the race and increased the tension. But that played into his favor.
“I was kind of glad to have the rain, not only because it seemed like our car came to life after that, but also kind of breathe and relax,” Gordon said. “Things were going pretty bad up to that point, then it turned around in a big way for us.
“To me, I feel very relaxed this week. I'm anxious to get the race started. I feel like our chances are good. I know that our team has been in this situation and knows how to fight and overcome this type of adversity.
“I'm confident with the group we have going into it.”
Busch is a target for Gordon. But Gordon doesn’t want to get too concerned about Busch’s position on the track. It could potentially cause Gordon to lose focus of his objectives behind the wheel of his No. 24 Chevrolet.
“I won't ask,” Gordon said of Busch’s position on the track. “To me, even last year in the closing laps, it changes every single lap. You don't really want to focus on that. You just want to focus on pushing as hard as you can.
“I hope we're in a similar situation as last year where we've got the tires, we've got the car, and I'm able to focus on go get that next car, go get that next car. That was the nice thing about last year was the way it ended. You never were thinking about what other guys were doing, you were only thinking about what you were doing. That's something else we take from last year, try to incorporate into this weekend. Focus on what you're doing, don't focus on what anybody else is doing.”
Busch shares the same strategy as Gordon. The driver who still has hopes of competing in next year’s Indianapolis 500 for Andretti Autosport wants to run his race pace and not have it be determined by another driver.
“If I'm running up front, that protects us very easily from not having to add up points to know where Gordon is,” Busch said. “Fifteenth is what I'm going to call the threshold for us on when things aren't necessarily guaranteed because we have to stay 15 points ahead of Truex, who has a win and could move into the top 10 in points. As long as we're running up front, which we hope we will. We ran this Richmond race earlier this year in third place most of the night. We finished ninth after one of those crazy restarts at the end. We feel like we're going to be in good position.”
It would be very impressive if Busch made it into the Chase considering he drives for the single-car Furniture Row team based in Denver. Next year he moves to Stewart-Haas Racing as that operation expands to four cars.
Busch has made quite a comeback and rebuilt his image considering where his career stood when he was fired from Penske Racing at the end of the 2011 season.
“A few months ago, we needed to put ourselves in position to control our own destiny,” Busch said. “We've accomplished that. Is it the cushion that we wanted? No. We have only a six-point cushion. At the same time, we can look forward and see that Greg Biffle is ninth in points, and he's only eight points ahead of us. Logano, he's 10 points ahead of us. There are plenty of positions to gain moving forward. That just gives you the motivation to know it's not necessarily about defending what position you're in with the guys behind you.
“So we've had our shares of strong runs. We've had our shares of misfortunes. Are we a Chase team? I believe so. I think we've performed at levels that are comparable to those that are locked into the Chase such as the top-five numbers, top-10 numbers, laps led, just the general stats board has us in good position. But the most important is the overall points tally that we have, and that's got us in 10th, with a six-point cushion. So I've been in this situation before, but it was to win the championship, it wasn't to race into the Chase.
“It seems like each year that I've made the Chase, there was plenty of comfort, plenty of room to spare as far as like having a poor finish and the help of somebody else we would still get in. This reminds me of the 2004 battle where I went into Homestead where I had a few points positions as far as a cushion. We were able to bring it on home and deliver.”
Just as Gordon realizes a driver can’t win a title unless he gets into the Chase, Busch is confident he can race for the championship if he is able to take Furniture Row to NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.
“We can contend,” Busch said. “I'm optimistic about it. We posted great numbers all season. We have a test session left that will allow us to prepare at a track that might be a good track for us, to get even better, or use that test session on a track that I know I struggle on in those final 10 weeks.
“The team has advanced a tremendous amount. When I said we found a new rhythm at Texas, I think we hit another boost of speed when we came back to all these tracks a second time. Since then, like at Pocono earlier this year we finished seventh, second race third. Michigan we wrecked in the first race, but we came back and finished third again. Those are the finishes that it's going to take to run well in the Chase. When you're talking about third, sixth, fourth, like last week, those are the numbers that stack up to give you a shot in the Chase.”
Busch is on the cusp of making the Chase and defying the odds and that has been impressive to the driver who is most closely pursuing him at Richmond.
“It's definitely been impressive,” Gordon said. “They've had a lot of speed this year. They've really come together. Any time you see that out of a smaller team it's a great story with Kurt, as well, with all that he's been through, to be able to do it with that smaller team. I look for them to have a lot of speed again Saturday night.
“I think we have a slight advantage on pit road. I think the advantages kind of weigh out with the speed that they've had. If we can have one of our better-performing race cars this weekend and the pit stops, definitely we're going to have a good advantage.
“The reason why we're in this situation is we've had inconsistent speed this year with some other issues. They've had speed, but inconsistent pit stops, some other issues that have kept them from being higher up in the points.
“There are a lot of teams out there, more so than just Kurt, that we are going to have to deal with. Anybody can have that breakout race that you didn't expect.
“All I care about is we bring our A-game and perform at a level we're proud of when we leave here.
“This is not the last race of the year.”