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Gordon's day could've been worse, but not much

October 10, 2011, Dave Rodman,

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- After running in top 10 all day at Kansas, finishes 34th with a blown engine

Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch have already proven seemingly debilitating points deficits aren't a roadblock to competing for the 2011 Sprint Cup championship.

After a devastating 34th-place finish in Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, Johnson's teammate Jeff Gordon will be the latest to test the premise.

Up in smoke

Jeff Gordon's championship hopes took a big hit at Kansas as his engine expired with three laps remaining.

Gordon spent two-thirds of Sunday's race -- the fourth in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup -- in the top five with his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. But with less than two laps remaining in the original 400-mile race distance, a problem in his car's oiling system caused an engine failure.

"I started seeing smoke inside the car," Gordon said. "We had a really bad restart there and got shuffled back. Our day was pretty much over anyway and we were going to finish maybe 15th or something.

"Right there I started what smelled like burning oil and I saw the oil temp start to come up and I felt like it was just a matter of time before it blew up. I've got to thank Quaker State because the thing lasted a lot longer than I thought it would."

Gordon came into the weekend ninth in the standings but only 19 points out of the lead. Five-time defending Cup champion Johnson won the race and Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick, who came into the weekend tied in points, finished fifth and sixth, respectively.

Now, Edwards is a point ahead of Harvick in the standings while Johnson's third, four points behind. Gordon, on the other hand, saw his deficit grow to 47 points as he fell to 10th.

Gordon's crew chief Alan Gustafson struggled a bit to find some humor in their situation after Gordon had said on Friday, while Sunday's race wasn't a make-or-break situation, "we need to come out of here with a strong performance." Gustafson wouldn't admit Sunday's outcome was the worst their Hendrick Motorsports team could have experienced.

"We could've wrecked or blown up on Lap 1 -- it could be worse, but not much worse, because it's based on your finishing position," Gustafson said. "Forty-third [position] would be the worst, and I don't even know where we finished. But we weren't the worst, I don't think [laughing]."

In fact, when the race was extended five laps beyond its original 267-lap distance, Gordon ended up with his worst finish in 21 races, since he finished 39th at Richmond in May. In his past 10 starts, Gordon had seven top-six finishes and only one worse than 13th. His owner knew what Sunday's outcome meant, even if he wasn't yet sure why it occurred.

"The No. 24 was really good [Sunday], and we have been very fortunate [this season] with no engine issues," team owner Rick Hendrick said during Johnson's victory celebration. "For whatever reason, the oil temperature gauge went to pegged, and we knew we were in trouble. Nothing you could do at that point, so something went wrong."

Hendrick, who has a record 10 Cup championships as an owner, knows too well the ramifications of Sunday's breakdown.

"I hate it for those guys because they had some really good momentum," Hendrick said. "But parts are going to break, and we've got to go home now and figure out what started it and try to make sure it doesn't happen again -- and our guys are really good about doing that."

And Hendrick said, as much as he knows his men will toil over the latest performance issue, he won't rest well on it, either.

"I think Alan and Jeff had some really good momentum, good cars and there's still a lot of racing left," Hendrick said of the season's six remaining events. "You just don't know what's going to happen. But when I see one of the cars have a problem, boy, it makes you tighten up a little bit.

"But knowing that the oil temperature was pegged, we knew that there was something else going on. I don't know what happened, but we'll find out."

"You know, the good news is, we don't have much to lose so we're going to cut it loose and go try to win at Charlotte."


Four-time Cup champion Gordon, who heading into this Chase felt he had his best chance to challenge for the title since he won his last one, in 2001, tried to be philosophical.

"It was a sequence of crazy events for us," Gordon said. "I don't know what happened, but my oil temp was just pegged for shoot, 30 laps and I knew it was just a matter of time. But to last that long was pretty amazing."

Gordon had started 10th but was scored in the top five up to Lap 210, when he apparently ran afoul of some hard racing on a restart. It was the beginning of the end, even though neither Gordon, nor Gustafson knew it.

"That restart Tony Stewart took me three wide, all the way down to the apron," Gordon said. "We were on old tires and that just ruined our day right there. He did what he had to do, it messed us up but right after that we start getting smoke.

"We thought it was tire smoke, but it wasn't -- it was under the hood, obviously it ended our day."

Before their car actually erupted in the fatal cloud of smoke, it looked like Gordon had no hope of advancing into the top 15. But Gustafson just shook his head at the thought the blowup just added insult to injury, his eyes hiding behind his sunglasses as the sun set on what turned out to be a miserable day in the Midwest.

"I think we were going to have a top-10 -- I feel like we could've got back there," Gustafson said. "Carl [Edwards] was back there and they ended up finishing fifth, so I knew there was going to be a lot of options for us to get back there. But then we had the engine trouble ..."

Gustafson, for one, recognized what not completing those last five laps meant in the big picture.

"Even if we'd finished 15th, obviously, that's 20 points different from where we finished and that's a big deal -- from 40-whatever [points] out to 20-whatever out -- so that's a whole different story," Gustafson said. "So even if it wasn't 10th, or if it was 15th, it wasn't going to be bad. ... It wasn't going to be great, but it wasn't going to be the shot like we got."

And even though Gordon practiced well, qualified in the top 10 and, as noted was scored in the top 10 for 79 percent of the race, Gustafson's face was pretty cheerless in a bustling post-race garage.

"There's not much positive we can take out of this," Gustafson said. "We're not into consolation prizes -- that's not what we were trying to do."

But from the fans' perspective, even as this Chase continues to build up as the best in its eight-year history, the hangers-on in the standings could provide some fireworks.

Gustafson took a long time debriefing with a number of his men and seemed in no hurry to leave -- even receiving a backslap of support from Gordon when the driver left the trailer, as they briefly exchanged words of support.

"You know, the good news is, we don't have much to lose so we're going to cut it loose and go try to win at Charlotte," Gustafson said. "That would be sweet. The only way that we can climb back up as far as we can is to win as many races as we can, so that's what we'll try to do."