RICHMOND, Va. — With his season essentially on the line, Jeff Gordon used a vintage drive to rally his way into NASCAR’s championship chase.
The 41-year-old Gordon battled an ill-handling car early in Saturday night’s race, then took off at the end to finish second to race winner Clint Bowyer at Richmond International Raceway. He wrested the final berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship away from Kyle Busch.
Busch finished 16th, and Gordon grabbed the 12th spot in the Chase field by a mere three points. Team owner Joe Gibbs met Busch on pit road and leaned into the car window to console the angry driver.
“We missed. That’s it. Plain and simple,” said Busch, adding Gibbs told him, “‘Handle it the right way.’ There’s no right way to handle this situation.”
Gordon, meanwhile, was ecstatic. He qualified second, but was terrible early in a race that was marred by three different rain showers. The start was delayed almost two hours, and a second shower caused a stoppage that lasted just under 52 minutes.
Gordon was livid when he exited his car on pit road during the red flag.
“I was pretty ticked off that we got that far behind,” Gordon said. “When you have that kind of a start to a race, you don’t have a lot of hope that you’re going to get it turned around.”
But his Hendrick Motorsports team got it figured out during the third and final rain shower.
NASCAR called a caution for rain, and Gordon was one of eight top drivers to head to pit road. Denny Hamlin, the leader, stayed out apparently in a strategy that relied on the race being stopped once and for all for rain.
Instead, NASCAR went back to green and Hamlin led a group of drivers down pit road in a desperate late pit stop. Busch was part of a group that had pitted shortly before the rain so he stayed out and was fourth on the restart. But everyone who had pitted at the start of the caution was on fresh tires — Gordon included — and they quickly drove through the field.
It put Busch back in traffic, and when he finally did go to pit road, a slow stop further hurt his chances.
He never had another chance as Gordon, a four-time champion, picked his way through the field to his second-place finish. It came a week after he failed to move Hamlin out of the way on the final restart at Atlanta, a decision that cost him the win and ate away at him all week.
“I went from last week being the most disappointed I’ve ever been to finish second this week, being the most excited I’ve ever been to finish second,” Gordon said.
Hamlin, who went into his home track as winner of the last two races, led a race-high 202 laps but faded to 18th. He still goes into next week’s Chase opener as the top seed based on his series-best four “regular season” victories.
Hamlin goes into Chicago up three points over five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, defending champion Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski, who are all tied for second.
The fifth slot in the Chase went to Greg Biffle, then Bowyer, who got three more bonus points Saturday night.
The seventh spot went to Dale Earnhardt Jr., then Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr., who along with Bowyer gave Michael Waltrip Racing two berths in the first Chase appearance for the organization.
The wild-card slots went to Kasey Kahne and Gordon, who ensured all four Hendrick Motorsports made the 12-driver field.