Jeff Gordon’s addition as a 13th member of the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup was repeatedly labeled “unprecedented.”
You could now say the same about his run to a possible fifth series championship.
Gordon, added to the Chase field by NASCAR Chairman Brian France because of a cheating scandal last month at Richmond, Va., won his way into title contention Sunday, holding off Matt Kenseth to win the Goody’s 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
The victory was Gordon’s first of the season, and after the dust settled from a caution and wrecked-marred race, he found himself 27 points out of the championship lead with three races remaining.
Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson are now tied atop the standings with Kenseth currently holding the tiebreaker (number of race wins).
While the scandal and the unorthodox method by which Gordon and his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team made the Chase may have raised the ire of many NASCAR fans, Gordon offers no apologies for his performance since.
“I don’t like how we got in it, being added as a 13th team,” said Gordon, who earned his 88th career victory. “You can dispute that all you want, but we’re certainly not going to say we won’t take it.
“We wanted to be in it. We feel like we were in 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.”
Regardless, Gordon has saved his best performances for the best time of the season.
In five of the seven Chase races thus far, he has finished seventh or higher. His worst finish was 15th at New Hampshire.
Many may question Gordon’s participation, but his crew chief, Alan Gustafson, said questions of whether they could compete already have been answered.
“If we didn’t belong here, then beat us,” Gustafson said. “If we don’t belong here, then we won’t run good and we’ll be 13th.”
That has certainly not been the case in the Chase, especially Sunday.
Johnson and Kenseth dominated the race early, combining to lead 217 of the first 237 laps.
Gordon passed Clint Bowyer on Lap 282 to take the lead for the first time. A debris caution on Lap 416 sent all of the lead-lap cars down pit road for fuel and tires. Kenseth restarted with the lead, followed by Brad Keselowski and Gordon.
With 20 laps remaining, Gordon, who had worked his way to second by then, passed Kenseth to retake the lead and quickly built up a significant advantage.
The victory was especially emotional for Gordon, who won at the Virginia short track for the eighth time but the first time since 2005.
A team that just over seven weeks ago thought it had been left out of the Chase suddenly has a new purpose.
“It’s hard to top what it feels like to win; especially when you’ve been through all of what this team has been through,” Gordon said. “I’m just so proud of them for never giving up.
“We’ve been through a lot, but boy, this is making it all worth it.”
The road ahead isn’t easy. Johnson and Kenseth clearly have been the two best drivers all season long.
“We’re all alive, but right now there’s two that are in it,” Gordon said. “Our job is to go to Texas and make it three.”
Bowyer finished third in the race, Keselowski was fourth and Johnson fifth.
Kenseth led a race-high 202 laps but spent more time in the race’s closing laps working to hold off Bowyer and had little opportunity to catch Gordon.
“I’m just not that experienced running upfront here and I had something that was working but I was kind of hurting the rear tires and I hurt the front tires, too,” Kenseth said.
“It just went away from me there at the end. But it was a great race.”
If the final three races turn into a head-to-head battle with Johnson for the championship, Kenseth said he is prepared.
“I really feel like we got what it takes to race in the last three races,” he said. “I feel like when my team is at its best and we do everything right, I feel like we can race anybody at these next three tracks.
“I really feel good about that.”