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Pocono madness shakes up wild-card picture

August 06, 2012, Seth Livingstone, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com



Pocono madness shakes up wild-card picture
LONG POND, Pa. -- Gordon in second spot on tie-breaker; Kyle Busch's woes costly to Chase hopes

Talk about silver linings.

Thanks in part to Jimmie Johnson's late-race misfortune Sunday, Hendrick Motorsports went from having two cars in position to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup to having four, just as owner Rick Hendrick predicted prior to the season.

"We're obviously not going to make the top 10, so if we get a [second] win, great. We'll make the Chase. If not, we'll probably miss it."

--KYLE BUSCH

Jeff Gordon's win Sunday at Pocono Raceway flipped his status from also-ran to Chase contender.

Gordon was tied for 15th in the points standings entering the race, but his first victory of the season vaulted him into a tie with Ryan Newman for the second of two wild-card spots. Because each driver has one win and one fourth-place finish and neither has a second or third, the tie-breaker comes down to fifth-place finish. Gordon has the edge because he has one -- at Indianapolis -- and Newman does not.

Teammate Kasey Kahne, who holds the first wild-card slot by virtue of his two wins, solidified his standing by finishing second.

* Press Pass: Gordon | Kahne

"All I will say is we've been on a nice streak of finishes," said Gordon, who was 22nd in points after finishing 19th in the June 10 race at Pocono. "Even though they haven't been wins, they've been really solid finishes -- top-fives, top-10s -- that have gotten us further up in the points. The last several weeks, we've had something to build on.

"We knew how badly we needed a win, and we got it. But that's half the battle. In my opinion, this only puts more pressure on us over these next several weeks, but we're ready for the challenge."

If Gordon can make the Chase, the four-time Cup champion could be just as much of a threat as Hendrick drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson. Earnhardt tops the standings, while Johnson is in fourth place, eight points behind. With five races left before the Chase field is set, the two are virtual locks to be included.

Kahne knows it.

"Now we've got to watch out for them," said Kahne, who has a smidgen of Chase security as the only driver outside the top 10 with two victories. "If those guys get a little confidence, as fast as they've been, they can be pretty tough each week."

Alan Gustafson, Gordon's crew chief, acknowledged his team's outlook appeared "bleak" early in the season, primarily because it was shooting itself in the foot.

"Obviously [Sunday] was a great day for us," Gustafson said. "We gained some momentum the last several weeks with performance in points. But we know we needed a win to put ourselves in contention for the wild card. Winning [Sunday] was a huge deal. We didn't have the fastest car, I don't think, but I think we had a good enough car to drive from 27th to top five.

"I always felt like we could do it. When we do get it right, we'll have a chance to win a lot of races. We just needed something to go our way. It went our way [Sunday]."

The break Gordon was looking for came when Johnson and Matt Kenseth, running in the top two, got loose on the Lap 92 restart, triggering a five-car pileup that cleared a path for Gordon.

"Man, I've never seen the seas part quite like that, like they did going down into [Turn] 1," Gordon said. "I got a great restart and was able to dive to the inside in front of Kasey [Kahne]. I saw the No. 48 [Johnson] get sideways, and it just took them all out. And I was like, 'Wow.'"

"And then it started raining. I tell you what, with all the things that have gone wrong for us this year, I'm hoping that this is the one that makes up for it all."

* Video: Wreck, rain help Gordon break through

With the race for the second wild-card spot so close, Newman was happy with his sixth-place finish.

"A good, solid day," Newman said. "We needed that, another top-10. We gained on the No. 18 [Kyle Busch], but now I've got to contend with the No. 24 [Gordon] it looks like."

Entering the race, Busch was 11th, 55 points behind Clint Bowyer for the final spot in the top 10. Like Gordon and Newman, Busch also has one win in 2012 but fell to fourth in the wild-card standings and is 80 points behind Bowyer.

Busch broke a rear-brake rotor and crashed on Lap 20. He completed 74 laps, but his 33rd-place finish severely dented his hopes of making the Chase.

* Video: Dark days continue for Kyle Busch

"We pretty much [have to focus on wins] ... But the way our year has gone, it doesn't even matter," Busch said. "We're obviously not going to make the top 10, so if we get a [second] win, great. We'll make the Chase. If not, we'll probably miss it."

Although 12th in points, 60 behind Bowyer, Carl Edwards remains on the outside looking in. Edwards thought he had a car capable of contending at Pocono, but he settled for seventh place and remains winless since March 2011.

"We needed another restart," said Edwards, who had rallied from starting 17th. "It is too bad that the rain came when it did because we needed to keep racing. We had a really good car but got a poor restart on that last one which was the important start. The good news is that we were fast."