By Matt Weaver (MARTINSVILLE, Va.) – Maybe Jeff Gordon belonged in the Chase after all.
In the aftermath of the “spingate” controversy at Richmond and the dubious circumstances surrounding his inclusion into the championship field, Gordon and his No. 24 team has done everything short of matching championship co-leaders Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth.
With his win on Sunday at Martinsville, Gordon has now won a race this season, surged from 13th in the makeshift standings to third and sits just 27 points behind Johnson and Kenseth win three races remaining.
“Of course we’re in it,” Gordon said of the championship battle. “Until we’re mathematically out of it, we’re in it. This was certainly a big moment, big day for us. But it’s pretty darned great for (Johnson and Kenseth) as well. They performed very well again today and it’s going to be tough to beat them.”
While the championship gap may be too much to overcome, Gordon’s Martinsville triumph proved that Gordon was indeed playoff caliber and that the four-time champion’s winning days are not far behind him.
Despite many claims to the contrary, Gordon was not a middle of the pack driver at any point this season. He has led in 16 of the season’s 33 races and led 385 laps over all. Gordon has been a contender for much of the season but has suffered some of the worst luck of his entire career.
His five DNFs are the most amongst Chase drivers and came at some of the most inopportune times of the season. He was leading at Bristol in the spring when he melted a bead and crashed into Matt Kenseth. He led laps at Texas and was running in the top-5 when he suffered a suspension failure.
Wrecks at Charlotte and Daytona also derailed his chances earlier in the season.
Gordon also gave up some chances at Victory Lane on his own merit, most notably at Pocono in August when he led Kasey Kahne off the final restart and just got beat — it’s been that kind of season.
Despite all the adversity, Gordon had still raced his way into the Chase with eight laps to go at Richmond. It wasn’t under ideal circumstances but NASCAR determined that Gordon and team had done everything they were supposed to do after 26 races to make the Chase.
And that perception was validated with a trip to Victory Lane.
“I feel like we deserved to be in it,” Gordon said. “I don’t like how we got in it, being added as a 13th team. You can dispute that all you want. But we’re not going to say, ‘no we won’t take it.’
“We wanted to be in it. We feel like we were in a position to earn our way into it, and I think that this team would have performed like this whether we were in it or not.”
In seven Chase races, Gordon has now won, scored an average finish of 7.1 and finished outside of the top-10 only twice. And while it’s unlikely that Gordon can win the championship, the 24 team is surging and they believe the Drive for Five is more alive than it has been in a long time.
And that should be cause for concern for Johnson and Kenseth.