Jeff Gordon heads to Watkins Glen with renewed hope

Posted Aug. 09, 2012, at 7:11 p.m.

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Since a blown engine knocked him out of the Daytona 500 to start the Sprint Cup season, it’s taken Jeff Gordon 20 races to drive into contention for NASCAR’s postseason.

And he’s there, finally. After notching his first victory of the season last week at Pocono, Gordon holds one of two wild cards and would make the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship if it began this week.

“I don’t think a lot of people have really even put much emphasis and recognize, other than ourselves, how consistently we’ve been top-five, top-10 the last eight weeks,” Gordon said as he turned his focus to Sunday’s race on the road course at Watkins Glen. “That’s what’s moved us up into the position we’re in. That’s what put us into position to win that race.”

It’s been a rough road for the four-time Cup champion, who has run up front much of the season only to see his team’s efforts go for naught. Through the first 14 races of the 36-race season, Gordon’s average finish was an uncharacteristic 20.714, placing him outside the top 20 in points.

Two wild cards for the Chase are awarded to the drivers with the most wins outside the top 10, but only those in the top 20 are eligible.

Before his 86th career win last week — he finally had a stroke of luck when leaders Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth tangled on a restart and Gordon slipped past unscathed into first, getting the victory when rain prevented the completion of the race — Gordon was an afterthought at best to make the Chase.

It’s the wackiest season he’s had since becoming a full-time Cup driver in 1993:

— In March at Bristol, the exhaust on teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car cut a tire on Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet and Gordon limped home 35th.

— Only half a lap from winning at tiny Martinsville in April, he was wrecked during a green-white-checkered finish and ended up 14th despite leading 328 laps.

— Gordon won the pole at Talladega, but a late crash doomed him to a 33rd-place finish.

— At Darlington, Gordon, third all-time with seven wins at the tricky egg-shaped speedway, had two flat tires and came home 35th.

— Seemingly in the clear of a late accident at Daytona a month ago, Gordon was hit from behind while heading to pit road but salvaged a 12th-place finish.

Instead of conceding, Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports team have persevered despite more than a few tense moments between Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson.

“When you go through something like that, it really tests you,” said Gordon, who’s reeled off six top-six finishes in seven races. “It tests every aspect of the team, personalities. It either pulls you apart or it brings you closer together. It’s brought us closer and stronger together.”

Watkins Glen International’s high-speed, 2.45-mile layout with its 11 turns has been both good and bad to Gordon, the all-time leader in NASCAR with nine road course victories. He has four wins — second to Tony Stewart’s five triumphs — six top-fives, nine top-10s, and two poles.

Although Gordon’s last victory at The Glen was in 2001, he’s been in contention since, most memorably in 2007. Gordon led 51 of the race’s 90 laps and was two car-lengths ahead of Stewart with just two laps remaining, but a classic battle between NASCAR’s two most successful road racers disappeared in the blink of an eye. Gordon spun off course on his own entering the first turn of lap 89 and finished ninth as Stewart celebrated in Victory Lane.

A strong sixth-place run in June at Sonoma, the other road course of the Cup series, has given Gordon renewed enthusiasm for Watkins Glen.

“We sort of lost that edge and great performance that we’ve had in the past when we were winning there at Watkins Glen,” Gordon said. “I’m really optimistic because I feel like we made some great gains at Sonoma this year, had a nice finish there, qualified good there, as well.

“Sonoma and Watkins Glen are different, but we feel like the test we did at Road Atlanta earlier in the year, the things we’re finding to improve the car in performance is going to pay off at Watkins Glen.”

Marcos Ambrose won last year’s race, besting Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski in a fending-banging, green-white-checkered finish that ended in caution when the cars of David Reutimann and David Ragan were crushed in a violent collision coming out of the first turn of the final lap.

Ambrose is bringing that same No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford back this weekend for the Finger Lakes 355 and expects to be in contention. The affable Australian has won all three Nationwide races he’s entered at Watkins Glen. In his three other Cup starts, he has one second and two thirds, including an impressive drive from last to third in 2008, giving him an average finish of 2.3.

“I’m confident,” said Ambrose, 17th in the standings. “We need to turn our season around.”

Just like the 24 has with five races remaining before the Chase begins at Chicagoland.

“For us, we’ve been building momentum for several weeks with great finishes, as well as just really solid runs,” Gordon said. “That’s the difference from the start of the season. We had great runs and just weren’t putting any kind of results together, so we put ourselves into this hole that we’re in.

“But the last eight weeks, even with a few glitches along the way, we’ve been getting ourselves out of it. I hope the next five weeks we continue to do that.”

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