Gordon's Chase Quest Takes a Hit
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on August 12, 2013 | 10:30 A.M. EST
Jeff Gordon has had more finishes outside the top 30 than he's had top-five finishes this season. Thus, he's fighting for a spot in the Chase entering the final month of the regular season. (Photo: Getty Images)
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. - Call it the price of fandom, a bond secured when one buys a driver’s T-shirt, diecast or knick-knack. Nothing is better when that driver succeeds. Nothing is worse when they don’t.
Denny Hamlin fans know such anguish. They’ve seen their driver injured and struggle this season. They are not alone. Tony Stewart fans root for a car absent their driver. Jeff Gordon fans ride a tempestuous wave.
Sunday, there was no Stewart in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race for the first time since 1998. Fifteen laps into the race at Watkins Glen International, there also was no Gordon when he lost control of his car and wrecked.
Gordon later returned to finish 36th, falling out of the top 10 in points and in danger of missing the Chase for the first time since 2005.
Gordon again seems destined to go to Richmond next month fighting to make the Chase. His stirring run last year - he rallied from a lap down - to beat Kyle Busch for the final Chase spot thrilled his fans. But can they handle another hand-wringing, stomach-churning race at Richmond this year?
Maybe he won’t need it. Then again, with four races left until the Chase field is set, Gordon’s roller-coaster season seems likely to continue. Just a week after he nearly won at Pocono, Gordon’s hollow voice betrayed the disappointment he felt after crashing Sunday.
After viewing a replay of the crash, Brad Keselowski tweeted early Monday morning, "That is the definition of aero push ... nothing you can do as a driver."
Even so, the Watkins Glen finish gives Gordon more finishes of 30th or worse this season than top-five finishes. One race doesn’t doom his season - yet. He came to Watkins Glen having placed in the top 10 in five of the last six races. It was his best portion of the season.
That stretch not only put him back in Chase contention but changed the outlook some had of him. Friday, he was asked if he felt this might be his best shot going into the Chase of being a significant title contender.
"Wow, things change in one week," Gordon deadpanned. "Last week, it was, 'Do you have a chance to make the Chase?' "
Gordon admits what he loves about the Chase is the second chance it provides teams.
"You can be off the pace or not having things go your way early in the season ... and if you make it in that Chase, then you really could be a threat at winning it," he said. "I don’t think that we’re considering ourselves the contender for the championship, but I think we’re a real serious contender in the Wild Card and that ninth and 10th position. We’ve got a little work to do yet."
It became more work after his crash.
Ninth through 15th in the standings are separated by 27 points. Gordon fell four spots to 13th after his Watkins Glen woes. Martin Truex Jr. is 10th in the standings - the final automatic spot in the Chase. Gordon trails Truex by 15 points. Between them is Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne.
It seems simple enough over four races - just finish ahead of those three drivers and Gordon could be in the Chase. The challenge, though, are the tracks ahead. Gordon didn’t qualify well at Michigan in June and was collected in Bobby Labonte’s early crash. Gordon has two top-10 finishes in his last six starts there.
The series then heads to Bristol - where Gordon has finished 34th, 3rd, 35th, 3rd in his last four starts. He's had a victory and a runner-up finish in his last two starts at Atlanta. At Richmond, Gordon has two top-10 finishes in his last six starts.
If that is any indication, the next four races could be stressful for Gordon fans.
As for Gordon?
"Just keep working to go to the next race and qualify better, execute better and not make mistakes," he said after his accident at The Glen. "It's on to next week."
Gordon fans will be watching, anxious to see if he can make the Chase and contend for that elusive fifth championship.