MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Jeff Gordon used an unprecedented chairman’s selection to get into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship 48 hours before the opening race.
Now Gordon is trying his hardest to parlay that exemption from NASCAR chairman Brian France into a fifth title.
Gordon pulled into the championship picture Sunday with a win at Martinsville Speedway, his first of the season, to move from fifth to third in the Sprint Cup standings with three races remaining. Not too bad for the guy who started the Chase as the 13th driver in the field when France decided Gordon had been denied the ability to fairly race his way into the 12-driver field by the manipulations of at least three other organizations at Richmond.
I don’t like how we got in it, being an added 13th team, Gordon said. But we’re certainly 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.
To me, that decision just meant that what we’re going to be racing for is a championship instead of for ourselves and pride.
It was Gordon’s eighth career win at Martinsville but first since he swept the two races at the track in 2005.
He’s tied with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for Martinsville victories, but both trail Richard Petty (15) and Darrell Waltrip (11) on the career list.
Most important, though, is that the victory moved Gordon from fifth to third in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Matt Kenseth and Johnson left Martinsville tied atop the standings with three races remaining, and Gordon sits 27 points behind the leaders. Kevin Harvick is 28 points out, while Kyle Busch is 36 points behind.
Kenseth led a race-high 202 laps and was out front on the final restart with 77 laps remaining and Gordon lurking in third. Gordon stalked him for more than 50 laps before finally making the pass for the lead with 21 laps remaining.
Gordon didn’t look back in snapping a 32-race losing streak dating to last year’s season finale at Homestead.
Matt drove a really first-class caliber race today and I didn’t know if we were going to get him, but it sure was awesome when we finally did and just kind of hoped there were no cautions, Gordon said.
The victory clinched the manufacturers’ championship for Chevrolet, which won for the 11th consecutive season and 37th time overall.
Kenseth tied his career-best with a second-place finish, closing the gap on Johnson, who was up four points as they came into one of Johnson’s best tracks and one of Kenseth’s worst tracks.
Whenever your team puts you in front for that last run and you’re out there leading, you get beat, you’re always a little bit disappointed, Kenseth said. I just got beat by honestly experience and a better driver of this track. I was hesitant to change my line and do the things he was doing because what I was doing got me there. Just got too tight at the end. Wish I could do it over.
When it was time to leave, though, Kenseth had found the silver lining.
I mean, gosh, for how Martinsville has been for me, how could you not be pleased? he said. The only guy happier is Jeff. 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. Anything can happen, but man, we’re in it.
Clint Bowyer finished third, his best finish of the Chase, and moved two spots in the standings to sixth.
Defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, who is not part of the Chase, was fourth.
Johnson finished fifth and braced for an epic fight for his sixth championship.
It’s been a great battle with (Kenseth) and (Gordon) has really shown that he wants to be part of this deal as well, Johnson said. It’s going to be a dogfight to the end – the way I would like to race for a championship, and I know that’s what the fans want to see, so we’ll be digging hard.
Harvick was sixth, followed by pole-sitter Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle.