RICHMOND, Va. — Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon felt like his hopes were dead in the water when NASCAR red-flagged his last chance to get into the playoffs because of rain at Richmond International Raceway.
His car wasn’t running like it needed to be, and the chance seemed to be slipping away.
But just as major adjustments made by his crew started to pay off for Gordon and he began racing up to even challenge for the lead, a gamble by Kyle Busch’s team failed in the biggest way possible: Gordon, not Busch, grabbed the last spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup — the playoffs that begin next weekend.
The victory margin? Three points.
“I felt like I won the race tonight,” Gordon said early Sunday morning after finishing second to Clint Bowyer. The race was interrupted three times by rain, including the red-flag stoppage. “When that was over, and they told me I was in the Chase, we made it, I mean, I was ecstatic. I was going nuts.”
Gordon, once the dominant driver in the sport, hasn’t claimed a series title since 2001. He’s missed qualifying for the playoffs just once, but never had to scrap his way into the field like this time.
“Went from last week being the most disappointed I’ve ever been to finish second to this week being the most excited I’ve ever been to finish second,” he said. “Wow! What a race for us!”
Busch was left feeling the opposite after a nondescript race, especially for him at Richmond, where he had won four times, and claimed his only victory of this season on the series’ first visit in May.
For much of the night, it seemed like Gordon’s troubles were going to decide the issue.
Then, when the last caution flew on lap 277 for rain, Gordon, who was a lap down, pitted for tires and fuel and got back on the lead lap as the first car one lap down, and Busch’s crew chief Dave Rogers told his driver to stay out. It was a calculated risk that the rain might linger and end the race early.
Instead, the weather cleared, and Gordon’s car was suddenly among the fastest on the track, and Busch was among the drivers on old tires who became sitting ducks for most of the cars on fresh tires.
“We missed. That’s it. Plain and simple,” Busch said curtly after the race.
He also declined NASCAR’s invitation to come to the media center, and Rogers took the blame.
“I blew it. There’s no two ways to look at it,” Rogers said. “… I gave one up today.”
As he drifted back in the field late in the race, Busch said very little on his radio, seemingly realizing that the call was going to cost him a spot, and there was nothing he could do about it.
He had little to say to Rogers when they met after the race, either.
“You know, we were both speechless,” Rogers said, describing their meeting in the team hauler after Busch limped home to finish 16th. “We went up there and looked at each other and nodded at each other and just acknowledged that we’ll talk later. Both of us are hurting, but we didn’t say much. Kyle did a good job of keeping his composure and took it on the chin like a man and went back to his bus.”
Team owner Joe Gibbs, however, offered Rogers words of encouragement.
“I think for all of us here, you just feel bad because of all that was put into this,” Gibbs said, declining to reveal what he said to his crew chief. “Again, this is pro sports and the best people in the world competing at this level. It can happen to you. … I hate it for (sponsor) M&M’s and for all of us on the race team — Kyle, all of us. It was just a real disappointing night. It’s one of those things where it’s kind of like you can have the agony and defeat. That’s kind of what happened to us tonight.”
And now, the team will have the last 10 races, and all winter, to think about it.