Over the first 20 races of 2012 an unfamiliar word described Jeff Gordon: irrelevant. After blowing an engine in February in the Daytona 500 -- a race that seemingly set the tone for his season -- Gordon, a four-time Cup champion, never climbed higher than 15th in the standings and never reached Victory Lane. In the garage, you could hear whispers that suggested Gordon's best days were officially in his rear-view mirror.
Or maybe not. On Sunday, at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, Gordon won for the first time since September 2011. Now, he suddenly holds the second and final wildcard spot that advances to the Chase. With one of Gordon's best tracks, Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International, up next on the schedule (he has four career wins on the road course), he appears to be in good position to make the Chase for the seventh straight year.
The key moment of the Pennsylvania 400 took place on a restart on Lap 90. With a bank of rain clouds rapidly approaching the triangle-shaped track, the drivers knew that this would likely be the final re-start of the race, which heightened everyone's aggressiveness. Jimmie Johnson held the lead, but then as he charged through Turns 1 and 2 on the low line, he suffered a flat right rear tire, wiggled, then slammed into Matt Kenseth, which triggered a big wreck and took out the top four cars. Gordon was in fifth and sailed through the spinning, smoking cars unscathed. With Gordon in front, the caution flag waved and, minutes later, the heavens opened up and the race was called. "I've never seen the seas part like that before," Gordon said about the wreck.
Added Alan Gustafson, Gordon's crew chief, "It just went our way."
Gordon has flashed impressive speed this season -- he's held the lead in 14 of the 21 races -- but he's been undone by bad racing luck, a few bad calls on pit road, and occasional bouts of bad driving. But now, if Gordon can sneak into the Chase (and it says here he will), he'll be a legitimate title contender because he's only one of a handful of drivers that can win on all the different types of tracks in the playoffs.
Yes, on Sunday Gordon saved his season thanks to some great fortune in the heart of Pennsylvania. Here are four other things we learned at Pocono:
The garage was still abuzz on Friday and Saturday about the rear end of Johnson's No. 48 Chevy at Indy last weekend. Johnson's run at the Brickyard was the single most dominating performance of the season-he led 147.5 of the 400 miles-and it was clear that he had a mechanical advantage over the rest of the field. What was it? Well, it had something to do with the unique setup of his rear suspension, as the angle of his rear bumper appeared more pitched than usual. This enabled Johnson to cruise through the corners faster than the competition.
"They have got the garage scrambling a bit right now to try and figure out how to achieve exactly what they're doing," said Kevin Harvick.
"Whatever they've got working in the back of the cars is working well for them," said Denny Hamlin. "It's up to us to identify it and figure it out and get better. They've done their homework."
Johnson, by far, was the class of the field at Pocono. Kyle Busch, only minutes into the race, predicted that Johnson was going to lap the entire field. By my count Johnson was never passed under the green flag until the final wreck and he led a race-high 44 laps. The 14th-place finish was disappointing for the No. 48 team, but make no mistake: Everyone in the sport is still chasing the five-time champion. It's his title to lose.
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. won earlier this summer at Michigan International Speedway, it ended a four-year winless drought for NASCAR's most popular driver. At Pocono, Earnhardt snapped another streak: that of his record-setting consecutive laps completed to start a season.
After crossing the start-finish line for the second time on Sunday, Earnhardt broke Jeff Gordon's old mark of most consecutive laps completed to start a season. Then Earnhardt, who started eighth, passed Denny Hamlin for the lead. Fourteen laps into the race, Earnhardt, who took the points lead last week at Indy, was driving away from the field and had a 2.3 second lead.
But then shortly after a green flag pit stop, Earnhardt broke his transmission and was forced into the garage. This ended his string of 5,648 consecutive laps completed in 2012, which is a testament both to his ability this season to avoid trouble and the durability of the equipment that Hendrick Motorsports is providing him. Earnhardt came in 32nd but still sits atop the points standings.
If you polled the garage about which driver possesses the most natural talent behind the wheel, Busch would win in a landslide. But NASCAR's most technically skilled pilot may miss the Chase after he crashed into the wall on lap 19 at Pocono, which knocked out his track bar and caused him to sit in the garage for an extended repair. This came after Busch blew an engine in June at Pocono.
Busch wound up 33rd on Sunday and it marked his seventh finish outside the top 15 in his last nine races. Busch fell four spots in the standings to 15th and now he must win one of the final five races of the regular season even to have a shot of advancing to the playoffs as a wildcard. He's certainly capable of doing that, but it sure looks like his season is slipping away. And he knows it, judging by the tone of his voice as he told his crew after the crash, "Straight to the garage."
Last week I had lunch with Kahne at the Hendrick Motosports headquarters in North Carolina and he was brimming with confidence -- for good reason. He started the season slowly as he and his crew chief Kenny Francis adjusted to life at Hendrick in their first year at the sport's superpower, but now he has two wins and appears to be gaining speed by the week. "This is getting fun," Kahne said last week.
He had more fun on at Pocono. He finished second and jumped from 13th to 11th in the standings. So this means that if the Chase started today, all four Hendrick drivers-Kahne, Earnhardt, Johnson and Gordon-would qualify for the Chase. Barring something surprising, one of the those four drivers will be your 2012 Sprint Cup champion.