Jeff Gordon’s retirement season has suddenly taken on a completely different vibe.
Gordon, winless through his final season’s first 32 races, took advantage of a late-race wreck Sunday involving then-leader Joey Logano to win the Goody’s 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Gordon edged non-Chase drivers Jamie McMurray and Denny Hamlin for his 93rd career victory.
And, just like that, Gordon went from a driver struggling to advance through each round on points to becoming the first of four to qualify for NASCAR’s championship round Nov. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Gordon’s season has mostly been a farewell tour that has honored 24 years, four championships and – before Sunday – 92 victories. Although he performed well enough to qualify for the Chase, this season has been mostly about receiving going-away gifts from each track and endless requests for him to reflect on it all.
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That all changed Sunday, as Gordon thrust himself into serious consideration for the championship.
“This is turning into one of these just incredible storybook finishes to this year, to this career,” said Gordon, who went into the grandstands to high-five fans after the race. “Of all the years, I cannot believe this. Yeah, we had a few things that fell in our favor. But you’ve got to be there and be ready for that moment when it comes, and we were.”
That moment came late in the race, as darkness was beginning to fall, when leader Joey Logano, who was pursuing his fourth consecutive victory, was wrecked by Matt Kenseth on Lap 454 of 500. That red-flagged the race for 12 minutes, 46 seconds.
There was plenty for Gordon and others to think about during that time. Kenseth’s move appeared to be in retaliation against Logano, who had pushed Kenseth out of the way on his way to winning at Kansas two weeks ago.
But with Logano out of the race (Kenseth was already several laps down), the door was open for Gordon to take advantage. He did just that, passing Hamlin and AJ Allmendinger over the final laps.
It was Gordon’s ninth career victory at Martinsville, most among active drivers.
The victory was more meaningful for Gordon, however, because he didn’t want to have to continue to make it through the Chase without a victory.
“I didn’t have any preconceived mindset of what I wanted to do (in the Chase),” Gordon said. “I just wanted to be competitive. That’s what was frustrating. I wasn’t competitive, not at the tracks I felt like we should have been. The ones we were, we weren’t capitalizing on it. This makes up for a lot of it, I can tell you that.”
The pressure to win, especially in his final year, was there for everyone on Gordon’s No. 24 team.
“It’s tough because there is pressure there,” said Alan Gustafson. “You try to win. You want to win for a lot of reasons. You want to win for Hendrick Motorsports. You want to win for Jeff – surely on his last year. You want to win for our team. You want to win for yourself. There’s a lot that goes into it.
“It’s like your father when you’re a kid, you want to please him, do everything you can to make everybody happy. We weren’t doing a great job of it. Hopefully everybody’s a little bit happier now and we can give everybody something to cheer about at Homestead.”
So it’s on to Homestead – after intermittent third-round stops at Texas and Phoenix, where Gustafson said the team will likely experiment on setups for the season finale.
And it won’t matter who the other three drivers are. Gordon has a goal very much in mind.
“Why can’t we win at Homestead?” Gordon said.
1. Jeff Gordon
2. Kyle Busch
2. Martin Truex Jr.
4. Kevin Harvick
5. Carl Edwards
6. Brad Keselowski
7. Kurt Busch
8. Joey Logano