The four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion has always believed in the old assertion that second place is really “first loser,” but as he followed winner Clint Bowyer to the checkered flag early Sunday morning at Richmond International Raceway, the Hendrick Motorsports driver hailed a second-place finish for the ages.
|From afterthought to afterburners|
“We flat-out missed the setup, (and) I was not smiling and happy at that rain delay,” he said. “I was pretty ticked off that we got that far behind. When you have that kind of start to the race, you don't have a lot of hope you're going to get it turned around. But I went to (crewchief) Alan (Gustafson) and he never wavered. He was confident.
“I still had a little doubt in him, though.”
Realizing that not enough laps remained for a series of smaller, safer adjustments, Gustafson called the auto racing equivalent of a “Hail Mary” just before the stoppage. He sent a crew member to the transporter for a pair of bolt cutters, then used them to sever a restraining chain on Gordon’s rear sway bar.
It was a brutish adjustment; akin to trimming one’s sideburns with a chainsaw. It was also just what the doctor ordered.
|Gordon and Gustafson prevailed.|
“The biggest thing was that rear bar,” said Gordon afterward. “We just had to get rid of it. We did that. We cut the chain. Our car really started coming to us then. We finally got some drive off (the corner).”
Once the race restarted, Gordon went from afterthought to afterburners, beginning an unlikely comeback bid that was aided by a mid-race strategy call gone wrong by Busch’s crew chief, Dave Rogers. When rain began to fall again later in the race, Rogers left Busch on the race track, believing a race-ending shower to be in the offing. The rain quickly abated, however, forcing Busch to restart the event on worn tires. He quickly fell to the rear of the field, and when a long run of green-flag racing ensued, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver found himself in the midst of a gun fight, armed with nothing but a pocket knife.
While Busch struggled, Gordon continued to surge, passing car after car until he and Busch were separated by less than a handful of points.
Gordon declined to receive updates as the race would down, saying, “We weren't going to talk about it. Even in that final run, they just kept saying, `Go get that next one. All right, go get that next one.’ We were going through a bunch of cars, because there were guys on old tires. We were passing cars, (but) I didn't know what position we were in. I didn't know what was going on.”
He said he only realized he was close to securing a Chase berth when Gustafson’s voice became more strident with just a few laps remaining.
“Alan got pretty animated when he said, `you’ve got to get the 55 (Mark Martin). You have to get the 55.’ There were 10 laps to go and I had an idea then that (passing Martin) would get us in. But he didn't ever say it.
“When it was over and they told me I was in the Chase, I was ecstatic,” said Gordon, who shouted, "We're going to kick their ass in the next 10 races," over his in-car radio after taking the checkered flag. “After you have that kind of effort, fall back, then come up and finish second… to make it in by one point, man, I was going nuts.
|Gordon and Kahne are Chase-bound|
“I went from last week -- being the most disappointed I've ever been to finish second -- to the most excited I've ever been to finish second,” he said. “It was amazing. I still can't believe we actually did it. I know how proud Rick (Hendrick) is to have all four teams into this Chase. That was a big goal of ours, and it’s pretty amazing to know we accomplished that.
“After all the things that have gone wrong for us this year, everything went right for us tonight,” he laughed. “We had some guys stay out… on that last caution that really cost them good finishing positions. We came in and got tires at that time. We were able to drive up through there. (We) had a good race car.
Suddenly, after a trying regular season filled with heartbreak and struggle, Gordon said he feels optimistic about his chances to claim a fifth sprint Cup Series title.
“I don't see any reason why we can't and be a real threat for the championship over these next 10 races,” he said.
Based on Saturday night’s Richmond miracle, those words should serve as fair warning to the competition.Photos: Steve Helber/AP,