Jeff Gordon was rolling along at New Hampshire, leading by 10 seconds with 73 laps to go when crew chief Alan Gustafson came on the radio and asked him to save fuel.
"I thought we were good on fuel," Gordon responded. "We are," Gustafson said. "I want to save a little for a green-white-checkered. Don't worry about it, I just want you to be a little bit easy on the gas."
Gordon was understandably surprised three laps later when the No. 24 Chevrolet ran out of gas. The likely cause: the team didn't get enough in the tank on the previous stop. Gordon's momentum carried him into his pit box and, unlike Chicagoland, he kept his speed below the pit lane limit and avoided a one-lap penalty. The engine fired quickly -- sometimes they don't when they're hot -- but Gordon's stop was eight seconds slower than Tony Stewart's.
Gordon's fuel problems weren't over. The earlier mistake carried over through on the final stop. He got back up to third, but needed to save fuel and started backing off. Gordon fell to sixth and regained two spots at the end when Kasey Kahne pitted and Clint Bowyer ran out.
Gordon should have been, at worst, the second-place finisher to Stewart. It's very possible, maybe even probable, that he would have won without the fueling mistake. He was clearly faster in full race mode for most of the race and led the most laps (78). Stewart's Chevrolet came to life late, but he wasn't pulling away from Gordon. Without Gordon's problem, it would have been Stewart chasing Gordon at the end.
New Hampshire could have been a major setback for Gordon and he couldn't afford it in the Chase. He finished 24th in the opener at Chicagoland with a car that didn't want to turn for most of the race and ran out of gas at the end. Gordon lived to fight another day at Loudon because he had a fast car that allowed him to take fourth.
"I'm just glad we finished fourth," he said. "I don't know, somehow we misjudged how far we could go on that second to the last run and we ran out. We didn't feel like we were even close to running out. So, it just shows you how important every little thing is. I ran a little bit fast that run because we were out front in clean air and the DuPont Chevrolet was just driving unbelievable. We were setting the pace, so it is unfortunate that happened.
"But to pull off a top-five, we got what we could out of it. All we can do is look at the good side and it is good that we made gains in the points. We aren't making enough gains on the leaders. That is the only frustrating part."
Gordon jumped from 11th in points to fifth, 23 behind leader Stewart. He also regained some of the momentum he brought into the Chase. New Hampshire was his eighth top-five in the past 16 races, and in that span he's also won two races.
With eight races left in the Chase, 34 points separate 11 drivers -- from Stewart to Ryan Newman. Denny Hamlin, 66 behind, is in serious trouble, but the rest are in contention. Their seasons will be decided by how they run from Dover to Homestead-Miami.
Stewart's back-to-back wins have been shocking, considering how he ran in the regular season. But it isn't the first time it's been done to open the Chase. Greg Biffle was winless entering the Chase in 2008 and won at New Hampshire and Dover. He finished third in the Sprint Cup championship, 217 points (more than a race under the old system) behind Jimmie Johnson, who won three of the final seven races.
Stewart has taken control early, but history tells us it's far from over. Gordon has shown the speed to put together a run like he had in 2008. His No. 24 team has had its one bad race and it can't afford to give away points with mistakes like it did at New Hampshire. But fourth kept Gordon's drive for a fifth championship alive.