Despite valiant charge, veteran didn't qualify for Chase
RICHMOND, Va. -- Jeff Gordon thought he was in.
The four-time champion of NASCAR’s top series knew he didn’t have the best of restarts when the green flag flew for the final time at Richmond International Raceway. He knew he had passed the No. 14 of Mark Martin, the one vehicle he thought he had to overtake. He knew it was going to be close -- but he thought he had done enough.
Until crew chief Alan Gustafson came over the radio, and told his driver he had missed the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup -- by two positions on the race track, and one point in the standings.
“I thought we were OK,” Gordon said late Saturday night, after finishing eighth on the 0.75-mile short track. “I knew when the green flag came out and that restart didn’t go very well, some guys got by me. I was just hoping it wasn’t enough.”
It was just enough for Joey Logano to edge Gordon by one point for the 10th and final Chase berth awarded based on the standings. Since Gordon is winless on the year and would have lost a tiebreaker to Logano, he would have needed two more positions on the track. He also didn’t have a chance at one of the two Wild Card slots, which went to Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr. The near miss Saturday came one year after Gordon narrowly squeezed his way into the playoff, by three points over Kyle Busch.
This time around, he found out what it was like to be on the other side.
“We are a good race team. We’ve had our issues this year that put us in this position,” he said. “We shouldn’t be in this position in the first place. We are, and that’s the facts. We’ve got to execute better and do a better job to make sure we’re not in that position. We’re going to fight hard for the remaining 10 races, and do everything we can to rebuild and get ready for next year.”
Gordon came to Richmond at 11th place in the standings, six points out of top 10. The Hendrick Motorsports stalwart could have clinched at least a Wild Card with a victory, and he seemed ready to make a run at it after winning the Coors Light Pole on Friday and then leading the opening 49 laps in the race. But the No. 24 car faded over a long green-flag run that opened the event, and then just past the halfway point radioed that he had a vibration -- which turned out to be a loose right-front wheel.
The ensuing pit stop left Gordon in 21st position, two laps down, and more importantly 14 points out of a Chase spot. The No. 24 team was helped by the fact that Joey Logano struggled from the outset, opening the door for Gordon to make a charge. Gordon overtook leader Brad Keselowski to get one lap back, got back on the lead lap following a debris caution, lost another lap when Jimmie Johnson blew a tire while the No. 24 was coming to pit road, and then got the free pass once again.
Gradually, though, Gordon closed the distance between himself and Logano, whose balky car was two laps down, making it almost impossible to pass anyone in the running order. With 63 laps remaining Gordon was within four points. With 42 left, he was within one. With 33 left, he passed Martin for ninth place on the track, and usurped Logano for 10th place in the standings by one point.
“The way the night was going, I didn’t think we were going to make it in,” Gordon said. “We were struggling, and I thought, ‘There’s no way we’re going to make it at this rate.’ And then (Logano) gave us hope from having such a bad night, and then we got our car better, and all the sudden it felt like last year again and we were marching forward and we’re passing cars. They’re saying, you’re good, you’re good. I was trying not to get too excited about that, but I was certainly wanting to see that thing go all the way to the finish.”
He was good -- until Clint Bowyer spun to bring out a caution with six laps remaining, sending the leaders down pit road one final time and prompting a restart with several drivers’ championship hopes on the line. Gordon got jammed in and fell back, but an equally as important development was occurring behind him, where Logano had taken a wave-around and gotten to within one lap of the leaders -- and within sight of two other vehicles he was able to pass.
With one lap remaining, Logano held a two-point lead. Gordon got Martin -- but also needed Truex, who finished one spot ahead of him.
“We had it. We had it,” Gordon said. “… We just did not need that caution. That was unfortunate. Even with the caution, I thought we were still going to be good, getting four tires and being the No. 1 pit stall. We were starting on the inside. (Kevin) Harvick got a run on me, and I tried to block that. I got into the 16 (car of Greg Biffle) and it got all jumbled up, and the two guys with no tires were just causing chaos, and you knew that was going to happen. We just didn’t go. We just didn’t get the spots we needed to.”
He actually needed two positions, since Logano’s victory at Michigan would have been the tiebreaker. Either way, it was a painful end result for a driver who started the race showing such promise, and now will be left competing for 11th place for the remainder of the season.
“I just love that we stuck together and never gave up,” Gordon said. “We had a really, really good car there at the end. Would have liked to have been a little further up and not gotten so far behind. I don’t know what it is about this darn track, man. We just really struggled from the green flag. Going through a long run like that, we just don’t have what it takes to keep the car up front. We’ve got to work on that regardless, and keep putting this kind of effort in. But disappointed, for sure.”