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Gordon: Richmond Was A Defining Moment

Mark Armijo | Senior Correspondent, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 12 2012

Things looked pretty grim for Jeff Gordon at times during Saturday night's rain-soaked race at Richmond. Things got much better on Sunday morning. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By Mark Armijo | Senior Correspondent
RacinToday.com

PHOENIX, Ariz. – On Tuesday in Phoenix, the sky was the color of gun metal; a rainy, overcast day in the Valley of the Sun. To look at Jeff Gordon, a welcome visitor thanks to a dramatic drive Saturday at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, you would have thought it was spring.

“I felt like I won the Daytona 500,” said Gordon, still beaming following a Richmond result that collared the final available spot in a 12-driver NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup showdown that begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.

Although Gordon didn’t even win the race at Richmond, a runner-up finish was enough to put him in the Chase at the expense of Kyle Busch, whose 16th-place finish allowed Gordon to overcome a 12-point deficit entering the final race before the Chase lineup was settled.

“This (Richmond) was a defining moment, possibly not just in the season, but in my career,” said Gordon, who with 86 career wins (63 runner-up finishes) ranks No. 3 on the all-time list. “This is my 20th season and I don’t have 10 more years left ahead of me so I think to be able to go and race the way we did (at Richmond) and do it in this fashion, that’s what gets you excited.”

From where Gordon was positioned well past the midway point (nearly two laps behind) at Richmond, it was hard to believe he would eventually feel as if he was on top of the world.

“I wasn’t as low as I could be because the race wasn’t over, but I was very frustrated and disappointed,” said Gordon, one of several Chase drivers making the rounds Tuesday to promote NASCAR’s playoffs. “It

Jeff Gordon is back in the Chase. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

took the wind out of me. It deflated me.

“I’m one of the tools we use to make the car better and I told Alan (Gustafson, his crew chief) what I wanted in the car before the race. They made the changes and we missed it.”

But not for long.

Gustafson mandated more alterations as the race proceeded and used the positive results to allow for a late-race charge.

A strategic decision to pit for fresh rubber on Lap 281 also gave Gordon the ammunition to motor past Busch into 13th on Lap 286, a pass that was followed by many more over the race’s waning laps.

It was NASCAR Theater at its best.

Would Gordon pass enough cars to gain enough points to overtake Busch?

Answer: You better believe it.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Gordon’s teammate, may be NASCAR’s most popular driver. But Gordon is the sport’s ambassador and perhaps it’s most congenial wheelman.

Gordon’s drive to a seventh straight Chase appearance was eye-pleasing and exactly what he needed at a point in his career where wins aren’t nearly as plentiful (five over the past five seasons) as earlier when he motored to an astonishing 67 during a 10-run beginning in 1995.

“People are going to give me a lot of credit because I was passing cars and taking them three wide,” said Gordon, a four-time series champion. “But I didn’t like all of a sudden I decided I’m going to start driving the car. It was the team that gave me the car to start driving the wheels off of it.

“And that’s what builds momentum and teamwork. It’s what we need to be successful in the Chase.”

What Gordon needed at Richmond was a run for the ages. And, my, how he delivered.

“I see it on Twitter where people say you should go do this and do that,” Gordon said. “But I really am driving the wheels off the car every week. I think the difference Saturday is people saw that drive in me. They saw the battle we put up as a team. For it to happen at a crucial time and up against an incredible competitor like (Busch), and to battle back from being so far down. I mean, it was really epic for us.

“People say that’s the Jeff Gordon I used to know and all this stuff. But, really, that guy hasn’t gone anywhere. It was just we were in a position to show it at Richmond and it all worked out.”

If it works out over the next 10 races and leads to a fifth Cup title, Gordon may want to rethink any thoughts of impending retirement.

“When you get to this point in your career, you’re trying to maintain what expectations have been put out there and the success you’ve had,” Gordon said. “There’s a reason careers come to an end. You’re not having as much fun and you’re not as competitive.

“We haven’t won as many races the last couple years as we used to win. There’s no secret to that. But yet I feel like I still have the drive and the talent.

“What we accomplished at Richmond has really rejuvenated me and the team. It’s really fired us all up. We’re only 12 points (behind leader Denny Hamlin). We were more than that behind (Busch) going into Richmond.

“I think anything is possible.”

After Saturday, who would argue?

– Mark Armijo is the long-time auto racing beat writer for the Arizona Republic and a frequent contributor to RacinToday.com

Mark Armijo | Senior Correspondent, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 12 2012
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