By Dustin Long
August 06, 2012
Jeff Gordon currently holds the second wild-card spot for the Chase.
Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR

One lap in a season that has run 5,648 and will run thousands more can mean everything.

It does for Jeff Gordon.

One lap might have cost him a chance at the championship -- and still could -- but one lap Sunday could give him the chance to challenge for the title.

What happens in the next five races will determine how important that one lap was Sunday or the one last weekend at Indianapolis or even that one in Martinsville in the spring. In a sport of dramatic speeds and flashy times, it is the smaller increments that can mean the most.

Jeff Gordon owns the No. 2 wild-card spot -- for now -- based on a tiebreaker. He and Ryan Newman each have one win. Each has 611 points. NASCAR breaks ties based on wins. That's how Tony Stewart was declared the champion last year after finishing tied with Carl Edwards in points after the season finale at Homestead.

If wins can't break a tie, NASCAR goes to second-place finishes, third-place finishes and so on.

NASCAR had to go deeper to break the tie between Gordon and Newman. Neither has a second-place finish. Neither has a third-place finish. Both have a fourth-place finish. The difference comes in fifth-place finishes: Gordon has two; Newman one.

Gordon's first fifth-place finish came at Kentucky. His second fifth-place finish -- which puts him ahead of Newman for now -- came at Indianapolis in the final laps.

Gordon was eighth with 10 laps left at the Brickyard. Newman was sixth. Within five laps, Gordon moved to sixth, passing Newman. Had they finished that way, Gordon also would own the No. 2 wild-card spot because he has more sixth-place finishes than Newman. Gordon moved past Hamlin for fifth on lap 159 of the 160-lap race at Indy and that gives him the tiebreaker advantage on Newman based on fifth-place finishes.

Gordon's charge shows how one move, one lap can be critical in a season that stretches from February to November.

Maybe Gordon's late-race dash at Indy will make up for lap 504 at Martinsville in April. Gordon led on the green-white-checkered restart when Clint Bowyer made a daring move to the bottom and hit Gordon, who hit Johnson as they went three-wide into Turn 1. Bowyer's move, ironically, allowed Newman to shoot by on the bottom and take the lead. Newman held on during the final restart to win, which has put himself in position to contend for a wild-card spot.

That lap seem to symbolize Gordon's season. He's been fast but has had ill fortune and questions were being raised about if Gordon would miss the Chase.

Then things went his way Sunday on lap 91 at Pocono. Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth raced side-by-side going into Turn 1 on a restart when Johnson bobbled and got into Kenseth. They both drifted up. Brad Keselowski, running third, had to slow to avoid them. Greg Biffle, running fourth, bounced into the wall.

Gordon, running fifth, raced by on the bottom of the track and into the lead. Johnson later said he had a tire going down and that caused the incident.

"To see this race unfold the way it did, you know, certainly makes up for a lot of those would have, could have, should haves this year,'' Gordon said after ending a 31-race winless drought with his 86th career Cup victory. "Things are coming together at the right time. The attitude of this team is that we don't ever give up. We keep fighting. We go to the racetrack, try to win.

"It's nice to know that things can still go our way. I hate it for the 48, those guys, what happened. But we haven't had a whole lot go our way this year. To have the first four cars in front of you all slide up the racetrack, you go by and win the race with the rain. It's nice to know that at least things can still go our way. So this is a big boost for us as a team.''

It also could be troubling for other teams. Gordon has been viewed as one who if he could get into the Chase could contend for the title because the speed his car has had throughout much of the season.

"The last several weeks, we've had something to build on,'' Gordon said. "When you do that, you do a better job of getting yourself in position for something like what happened. We knew how badly we needed a win, and we got it. But that's half the battle.

"Now, in my opinion, this only puts more pressure on us over these next several weeks, but we're ready for the challenge. I said this also, if we can get to Victory Lane and get some things to go our way, this team, because of what we've been through, that we've stayed together, haven't pointed fingers, it will make you stronger.

"This is a great moment for our team because I think we're really fired up for next week's race, and the coming weeks, to legitimately have a come?from?behind season."

In the eight races this season at tracks that will host a Chase race, Gordon has four top-10 finishes. He led 329 laps at Martinsville but finished 14th after the late-race incident on the restart. He was involved in an accident at Talladega and finished 33rd.

Martin Truex Jr., who finished third at Pocono on Sunday and is on his way to making the Chase, knows Gordon won't be an easy foe if he makes the Chase.

"Even though he's had a lot of bad luck this year and a lot of things happen, he's been fast, especially lately, he's been very competitive,'' Truex said. "Jeff is obviously capable of winning it at any given time. I wouldn't count him out until we got there, that's for sure.''

Because one never knows what can happen. And how one lap can change a season.

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