After a sluggish start to the season Jeff Gordon was in position to take a leap forward Sunday at Martinsville. He'd passed Jimmie Johnson for the lead and was three green flag laps from a victory that would have thrust him squarely into Chase contention.
But the caution came out, the race went into overtime and mayhem ensued on the restart. It was costly for every driver at the front. Johnson, on the outside of the front row, ended up 12th. Clint Bowyer went from third to 10th. Gordon, though, caught the worst of it, falling from first to 14th after the final caution and a second green-white-checkered restart caused him to run out of gas.
"That's just the way our year has been going," Gordon said. "It can't go on like this forever."
You wonder. Gordon has deserved better results this season, but the No. 24 team and the Hendrick organization have contributed to his problems in two of the previous five races. That's what made Martinsville such a disappointment. It was a prime opportunity to build momentum and restore confidence. A win would have elevated Gordon to 16th in the points and given him a solid hold on a wild-card spot in the Chase. Instead, he's 21st in the points, 53 behind Johnson -- who at 10th has the last guaranteed spot in the Chase -- and winless.
Yes, it's early and Gordon will undoubtedly climb into the top 20 in points (the cutoff for wild-card qualification) by the regular-season finale at Richmond on Sept. 8. But getting into the top 10 in points might prove to be a rigorous challenge. Every driver currently in it has been in the Chase. Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch are out of the top 10 and ahead of Gordon. Once in the top 20, Gordon would need to be one of two drivers with the most wins to qualify for the Chase.
Gordon has had some success this season. He was eighth at Phoenix and a decent 12th at Las Vegas. But bad luck has prevented even greater success. He had a top-10 Chevrolet at Bristol before teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. clipped his tire and spun Gordon into the wall, dooming him to 35th. Gordon started 21st at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., and had climbed impressively into the top five before he was penalized for accidentally dragging a crew member and gas can out of the pit box. The stop-and-go penalty put Gordon a lap down and, with the race checkered for rain after 129, he never had a chance to regain it, finishing 26th.
"I look at Phoenix, I feel like we qualified terrible [30th], we ran mediocre and we finished wherever we finished," Gordon said. "At Las Vegas, we qualified badly [16th], we didn't run well and we finished 12th. Bristol, we were running good, we know what happened there. Daytona, we were running good, we know what happened there. Last week [Fontana] was self-inflicted.
"We're going to work really hard to make sure that does not happen again.
"That is the beauty of the Chase. I like the Chase format for the Sprint Cup because we are still in it. We just have to focus on winning races right now. We can't focus on trying to be in the top-10 in points. If we win races, we will be in. That is the nice thing. I think we just have to eliminate the mistakes and we have a lot of races left to be able to pull that off."
Gordon and Johnson were the only cars that stayed out before the first green-white-checker. They were at a disadvantage on tires with 137 laps on them. Was it the wrong call? Probably, but it's an agonizing decision. If No. 24 crew chief Alan Gustafson and No. 48 crew chief Chad Knaus decided to come down pit road, they could have ended up several rows deeper in the field because some cars undoubtedly would have stayed out. Gustafson and Knaus decided track position was more important.
"I didn't get the best restart," Gordon said. "The tires are really old. I spun the tires a slight bit. When I saw [Bowyer] go down to the inside of me, I knew we were all in trouble. All I could do was just hold on tight. The No. 48 couldn't go anywhere; I couldn't go anywhere. It won the race for the No. 39 [Ryan Newman]. Yeah, that's Martinsville, right?
"It's pretty frustrating. Such a hard fought race, we had the car to beat early on, for most of the race. I wish there hadn't been a caution. I think we had the race [won]. I still thought we had it on the restart ... I wasn't expecting somebody [Bowyer] to be shoved [by Newman] to the inside of me and take it three-wide."
Newman emerged the leader and held onto it during the second green-white-checkered. Gordon ran out of gas and finished a lap down.
"We had a great race, a great race car and all we can do is hold our heads up high and go from here," Gordon said.
The four-time Sprint Cup champion can still make the Chase, but the next 20 races will have to be far more productive than the initial six. The No. 24 has left itself very little room for mistakes.