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Hendrick focused on Chase

September 15, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

With Gordon in Chase, team owner now has all four cars in playoff

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JOLIET, Ill. -- Over the span of a few days, Rick Hendrick went from “disgusted” over the result of last weekend’s regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway, to having all four of his drivers in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup for a second consecutive season.

A whirlwind week for the most successful car owner of NASCAR’s modern era took an unforeseen turn Friday, when Jeff Gordon was added as a 13th driver to the playoff on the authority of chairman Brian France. That surprising move capped a crazy span that included team manipulation of the Richmond race, historic penalties that knocked one driver out in favor of another, and then the addition of an extra competitor in what by rule has been a 12-man Chase.

Gordon now joins his Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the 10-race Chase, which opens Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.

“It was probably one of the most up-and-down weeks,” Hendrick said Sunday. “I thought as the race ended that Jeff was in the race, then the monitor showed that he wasn’t. I didn’t really learn a lot of the facts until we got back home. I applaud NASCAR for really looking at things and making it right. I thought (Gordon) deserved … to be in the Chase. I think it’s all worked out now and we’re ready to move on. I’m really ready to focus on the Chase now with all four cars in it, and hopefully we’ll have a good day here today.”

When last weekend’s race ended, Hendrick said he thought Gordon had narrowly qualified for the playoff. It was only after he had climbed off the pit box that he heard crew chief Alan Gustafson tell Gordon that they had missed it by a point -- although Gordon would have needed two extra positions to overtake Joey Logano, who by virtue of his victory at Michigan held the tiebreaker for the final Chase bid determined by the standings.

When Hendrick left Richmond, he was aware that Clint Bowyer had spun with seven laps remaining to bring out the final caution -- but didn’t know a controversy over potential race manipulation was blooming, one reason why he didn’t argue Gordon’s cause in the NASCAR hauler after the race.

“I’ve been doing this 30 years, and I’ve never been to the hauler at the end of a race and had any decision reversed,” Hendrick said. “… The race is the race and that’s it, and that’s the way it’s been for 30-plus years. I was just disgusted and left. I didn’t hang around, and left. I got out of there as soon as it was over, because it wouldn’t have done any good.”

In the ensuing days, everything began to change. Two days after the Richmond race, NASCAR charged Michael Waltrip Racing with attempting to manipulate the outcome of the event, and imposed penalties that knocked MWR driver Martin Truex Jr. out of the Chase in favor of Ryan Newman, who was en route to potentially winning until Bowyer spun. That, plus an unexpected decision to pit on the final restart by MWR’s Brian Vickers, helped Truex grab the final Wild Card and Logano seize the final spot based on standings, leaving Newman and Gordon on the outside looking in.

After suspicious radio communications emerged involving Logano’s Penske Racing team and the Front Row Motorsports program of David Gilliland -- who each field Fords -- France took the extraordinary step of overriding the rule book and placing Gordon in the Chase as a 13th driver.

Hendrick said AARP, sponsor of Gordon’s No. 24 car, was “calling me all week, and they were very disappointed and upset.” The team owner says he was packing meals at an AARP event in the Chicago area on Friday afternoon when he learned that Gordon had been added to the playoff. Having an extra car in the Chase is a big deal for an organization -- Kyle Busch said earlier this week it often brings bonuses from sponsors and manufacturers, and can mean up to an additional $3.5 million for a team.

“It’s huge. It really is huge,” Hendrick said. “You don’t want a sponsor to feel like they got robbed. And NASCAR’s in a tough spot, because you can’t make everybody happy. They have to have a rule and live by the rules, and I think they did a good job this week. And from what I’ve heard, Brian is putting his foot down, and we’re going to see a lot tighter rein on what’s happening on the track.”

Hendrick said the race manipulation scandal that’s gripped NASCAR in the wake of last weekend’s Richmond race will probably benefit the sport in the long run. And what he’s seen in France in recent days reminds him of the current chairman’s father and predecessor, Bill France Jr., who often oversaw NASCAR using a very firm hand.

“I’m just ready to end it,” Hendrick said. “I’m glad that Jeff’s in the Chase. I think Brian France did a great job, he stepped and said, ‘I’m going to make the decision, and this is the way it’s going to be.’ It sounded like Bill. ‘I’m going to make sure this doesn’t happen, and this is the way we’re going to race from here on.’ So I applaud NASCAR for what they’ve done. I think everybody in the garage, if we could go back and run Richmond over, I would be a lot different.”

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