Jeff Gordon has won 86 Sprint Cup races, third on the all-time list, and four championships, but he's never put together a more impressive comeback than he did Saturday night and Sunday morning at Richmond International Raceway.
Gordon started the 400-lap regular season finale 12 points behind Kyle Busch for the second Chase wild card spot. His No. 24 Chevrolet faded from the outside of the front row to a lap down when rain brought out the red flag for a 51 minute delay on the 152nd lap. Busch was 11th, Gordon 25th.
The "Lucky Dog" (for being the top car a lap down) moved Gordon back onto the lead lap during a second caution for rain from laps 277 to 282 and he took advantage to pit for fresh tires and fuel. Busch -- running fourth -- stayed out, and the complexion of the last race for the Chase changed dramatically. Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson had improved the car and the fresh tires had him running fast; Busch had been just OK and on worn rubber, began dropping down the order.
Gordon finished second to the fuel-saving Clint Bowyer and finished three points in front of Busch, who was 16th, for the 12th and last spot in the Chase.
"What an exhausting race," Gordon said. "So much pressure on us. When they dropped the green, we got the lead and I knew the drive off just wasn't there and we were in trouble. Man, we started going backwards. We made some drastic changes and, man, did it bring it to life. This is what the Chase and the wild card are all about right here. You want it to come down to the final laps at Richmond.
"I have been predicting this for weeks that it is going to come down to it. I just didn't know if we were gong to be able to pull it off."
Five things we learned at Richmond:
1. Don't count Gordon out in the 10-race Chase. He's made the Chase in eight of its nine seasons, but hasn't won a title in the format and there are those who wonder if, at age 41, he has another championship in him. Despite squeezing into the Chase, he's run well enough this season to make a run at a fifth championship if he can put 10 solid races together. Gordon has finished second in the last two.
"All the things that have gone wrong for us this year, everything went right for us (at Richmond)," Gordon said. "We had some guys stay out there on tires on basically that last caution that really cost them good finishing positions. We came in and got tires at that time. Alan (Gustafson) called a great timing for that last stop because Tony (Stewart) was ahead of us. We short pitted and it worked us getting out ahead of Tony and we were able run down Mark (third-finishing Martin) at the end.
"Thanks to all the fans for supporting us through all the frustration that we have been through this year, now let's go win this championship. After that effort, we can definitely do this thing."
2. Kyle Busch's failure to make the Chase was devastating for him and Joe Gibbs Racing. It's the second season in the last four that Busch hasn't made the Chase and it raises questions about his ability to handle pressure in crucial situations. He's also never won a Chase race.
But his failure to finish high enough to score more points than Gordon wasn't all his fault. Crew Chief Dave Rogers took responsibility for not bringing in Busch for tires during the final caution.
"I blew it, bud," Rogers told Busch on the radio on the cool down lap. "We missed it and it was 100 percent my fault."
Busch didn't have much to say to the media or Rogers.
"We missed," he said. "That's it. Plain and simple."
Rogers didn't have many words to say to Busch in the transporter.
"We were both speechless," Rogers said. "We went up there and looked at each other and nodded at each other and just acknowledged that we'll talk later. Both of us are hurting, but we didn't say much.'
3. Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. put Michael Waltrip Racing into the Chase for the first time. Bowyer's victory was his second of the season and he goes in with six bonus points, seeded sixth for the Chase. Truex doesn't have a win and that makes him the 10th seed, but he's been fast enough to win and finished sixth in the regular season.
"The last two months, we've had really good speed in our cars," Brian Pattie, Bowyer's crew chief, said. "I've been calling racing since about Indy conservatively and you've got to get in (Chase) before you can play. I told the driver (Bowyer) we'd gamble some more once we got in. We got in last week, so we gambled tonight and it paid off."
MWR had been a part time team prior to 2007 when it went full time with Toyota.
"In 2007 when we started this team, I made it all the way to March 'til I figure out that I was broke," Waltrip said. "I met (team co-owner) Rob Kauffman in April. He bought half the team in October (investing $30 million, according to sources). Since then, we've been making steady progress.
"Over the last year, the addition of Clint, the addition of Brian Pattie, Mark Martin� the job he's done for us� everybody's just rallied together. I'm obviously really happy with having two cars in the Chase. My inspiration for having a team from the beginning was Dale (Earnhardt). I always wanted to have a team like Dale had. So, anytime something goes good, I always think abut all he meant to me."
4. Carl Edwards' Chase hopes went quietly into the night. Edwards needed to win to have a chance at making the Chase for the sixth straight season, but never mounted a serious challenge at the front and finished 17th. His and the No. 99 Roush-Fenway's failure comes one season after he lost the championship on a tie-breaker to Stewart and signed a new multi-year contract.
"This isn't about one race," Edwards said. "It is 26 races and we just let too many points get away for a bunch of different reasons. There was a lot of luck involved and everyone tried really hard. It makes it pretty simple for the last 10 (races). We just go race as hard as we can. That has been kind of fun lately to do that, but man, I don't know, it is going to be wild to not be in the championship hunt. It won't be much fun at all."
5. Ryan Newman gave it his best shot at making the Chase. Newman needed a second win to make the Chase for the second straight season and third in five years and he led laps 300 to 312. But he finished eighth.
"It's disappointing," Newman said. "I don't really know what to say other than that. We gave it all we had in the Quicken Loans Chevrolet and we didn't get the win we needed to make the Chase."
Joey Logano and Marcos Ambrose also could have made the Chase with a second win at Richmond, but neither came close. Logano finished 30th, four laps down, and Ambrose was 15th, one laps down.