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Saturday, September 22, 2012

NASCAR Chase Jeff Gordon vows to rally

NASCAR Chase Jeff Gordon vows to rally: When a car crashed in his front yard Wednesday, Jeff Gordon tweeted a photo of the vehicle stuck in his hedges.

He was immediately flooded with responses, many asking if the throttle had stuck on the blue sports car that was now doubling as a lawn ornament.

Gordon was able to laugh about it Thursday, four days after a stuck throttle caused him to crash in the opening race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup race at Chicago. He'd been running in the top five most of the race, wound up 35th, and goes to Round 2 at New Hampshire last in the 12-driver Chase field.

He's confident a Hendrick Motorsports team that was soaring after Gordon raced his way into the Chase at Richmond on Sept. 8 will rebound from the hard fall at Chicago.

"I wouldn't say we're going over the next nine weeks going, 'Oh man, we're the team to beat,' " Gordon said. "But we're not going to stop. We're not going to give up. We proved once this year on how we made it into the Chase. Nothing would be sweeter than to prove we can win a championship, even with this."

Gordon said a bracket mounted to the spring return had been designed specifically for him to be used with NASCAR's new electronic fuel injection system, and the problem with his throttle stemmed from that.

"It's something that I'm surprised didn't happen sooner to us, just the way our bracket was mounted, it just broke," Gordon said. "It didn't stick wide open."

Gordon talked about the accident during an appearance at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he unveiled the Nickelodeon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle paint scheme he'll use in the Oct. 13 race. His 2-year-old son, Leo, was on hand to help uncover the car and meet the turtles.

Those are the kind of moments the four-time series champion is treasuring these days, and he said he's had no greater joy then celebrating his July win at Pocono Raceway with his wife and two children. He said his kids love racing, the cars and the paint schemes, but are typically unaware of the magnitude of crashes like Sundays.

"For what happened in Chicago, (Ella) was there and she knew it didn't go well," Gordon said. "She knows when it goes well because she gets to go to victory lane. But she knows some days it's a good day and some days it's a really disappointing day."

The bad day at Chicago led Gordon to shave the vintage mustache he'd promised to grow back if he made the Chase. CMS president Marcus Smith got Gordon to promise he will break dance — he was pretty good as a younger man — in victory lane if he wins at Charlotte.

"I've already proven I'm a man of my word," Gordon said. "There's always going to be motivation on things. Whether it's something that Rick Hendrick oversells on and has to live up to, something that he's going to give to a win, or me committing to something, that's fine. We've got a car that can win, there's no doubt in my mind."

Showing just how strong the No. 24 team really is will be the task for Gordon over the next nine weeks. He lingered on the Chase bubble for most of the season, got his only win in July and needed that big run at Richmond to beat Kyle Busch by three points for the final berth in the Chase field.

He said he certainly felt the pressure as team owner Hendrick had made it a goal to get all four drivers into the Chase, and Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kasey Kahne were already in the field. Racing his way in was a morale booster for Gordon, who won his last championship in 2001, and for his race team.

"Making it in, and the way we made it in, was really big. It gave us that boost that we desperately needed," he said. "I've always said I don't want to be in this sport driving around. If I am going to be in it, I want to be competitive, be healthy and I want to enjoy myself. Those three things have to all come together in order for me to want to stay out there.

"By making the Chase the way we did, battling like that, was good for me personally because it made people believe that I still have that drive." The results were the same, but Jeff Gordon couldn’t have gone through a bigger swing of emotions from his last lap at Atlanta Motor Speedway to his last lap in the next NASCAR Sprint Cup event at Richmond International Raceway.

He ran the gamut from smoldering disappointment to unbridled euphoria.

The four-time Cup champion was glum about his chances of making the 12-driver field for the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship after he came up short on his attempt to pass Denny Hamlin in the last corner of the last lap and finished as runner-up in Atlanta.

“Jeff was sort of beating himself up at the end in Atlanta because he felt he should’ve moved Denny,’’ said car owner Rick Hendrick. “He had such a run, he could have gone under him and moved him up, but he tried to do it the hard way around the top, and he was upset with himself about that.’’

Although he was unable to better his result in Richmond, where he finished second to Clint Bowyer, Gordon’s disposition was greatly improved after he overcame a lengthy rain delay, an ill-handling car, and the longest of odds to climb one spot to 12th in the driver standings in the final race of the regular season.

“Went from being the most disappointed I’ve ever been to finish second to the most excited I’ve ever been to finish second,’’ Gordon said after he clinched the second of the Chase’s two wild-card berths over Kyle Busch by 3 points, 777-774.

That scant margin could be traced to the crucial number of points Gordon was awarded for his lone victory of the season in a rain-shortened affair Aug. 5 at Pocono, Pa.

Gordon was the last of Hendrick Motorsports’s four cars to qualify for the Chase.

“Oh my gosh, I’ll be honest, I genuinely felt for Kyle after that race,’’ Gordon said. “My wife and I talked about . . . how that very easily could’ve been us.’’

Gordon, who started the Richmond race 12 points behind Busch, was running a lap down in 26th when rain stopped the race after 154 of 400 laps. Once the race resumed, Gordon worked his way back, regaining his lost lap when precipitation slowed the race on Lap 282.

With 22 laps remaining, crew chief Alan Gustafson ordered his driver to “go as hard as you can.’’

Gordon began picking off drivers, passing Brad Keselowski for fifth on Lap 379, Matt Kenseth for fourth four laps later, and Hamlin for third five laps after that. He climbed to second when he passed Mark Martin after another five laps.

“How we went through so many emotions this year and in that race, and to come out on top, there’s just jubiliation and excitement and overwhelming emotions of joy,’’ said Gordon, who finished 1.1 seconds behind Bowyer. “But we very easily could’ve been devastated. ‘’

Run of bad luck
At 41, happily married with two kids, Gordon is the second-oldest driver in the Chase field behind Tony Stewart (by two months and 15 days, to be precise). But Gordon had to overcome one of the most difficult seasons he’s ever had at Hendrick Motorsports to qualify for the Chase after starting out 35th in the points when an engine failure left him 40th in the season-opening Daytona 500.

It was the first of four DNF’s for Gordon this season.

“I was saying to Jeff, ‘Look, you have had some awesome years, but you have had the worst of luck this season than at any time you have driven for me,’ ” Hendrick said. “White flag, he’s leading the race at Martinsville [and finishes ninth after leading 329 laps]. I can think back to leading at Kansas and breaking a motor.

“I can think of all the things — the wrecks, the [ruptured] water hose after running third at Daytona and burning up a motor . . .

“I mean I can think back to all of that stuff and say, ‘Man, this has been the worst year in the world, but you’ve had speed, and whatever happens, happens and we’ll just go on.’

“But I could tell after Atlanta, it was really eating at him.’’

Sensing his window of opportunity drawing to a close, Gordon pushed even harder to make the Chase. It explains why he agreed with Darrell Waltrip, who described Gordon’s battle to make the Chase as “the defining moment’’ of his career.

“This really is a defining moment for me at this stage of my career,’’ said Gordon, who is NASCAR’s active career leader with 86 victories and more than $127 million in career earnings.

“Not making this Chase could have had devastating results. For Kyle, it’s not. This kid is talented, great team, and they’re going to be battling for more championships in years to come. But, for me, I don’t know how many more opportunities there are.’’


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