It wasn’t so much the victory but who he beat to earn it that might prove the most telling for Jeff Gordon.
Gordon ran down Brad Keselowski to take the lead and led 94 of the final 96 laps on his way to an important victory in Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway.
The win automatically advances Gordon into the second round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, although he was in little danger of missing the cut.
Perhaps more importantly, the victory came in what turned out to be a head-to-head competition with Keselowski, whose Team Penske organization is among the favorites to win the series championship.
“The Penske cars I think have the best short run cars in the sport right now, and when it comes down to restarts at the end, those guys are almost impossible to beat,” said Gordon, who earned the 92nd win of his career and first at Dover since the 2001 season.
“If we have more races come down to long runs, I think we’ve got a great shot at them.”
Keselowski, Joey Logano and Gordon advance to Round 2 with their victories in the past three races.
Also continuing to battle for the series title in the next three-race round are Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne.
Missing the cut and eliminated from title contention were the four Chase drivers lowest in points after the race – A.J. Allmendinger, Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle and Aric Almirola.
While Dover’s 1-mile concrete oval is unique to the series, Sunday’s victory will certainly provide benefits for Gordon and his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team going forward.
“It just gives us confidence and even more momentum to say, ‘Okay, we’re in the heat of the battle, this is the crucial moments of this season of when it matters most; what are we capable of when that pressure is on like that?’ ” Gordon said.
“That, to me, says a lot about who we are, the kind of team we are, and what our chances are moving forward.”
For much of Sunday’s race, it was Harvick who appeared ready to collect his third win of the season.
After starting on the pole, he led the first 147 laps and never was seriously threatened for the lead until he developed a problem with his left-front tire on Lap 251 shortly after a green-flag pit stop.
Harvick went to the pits on the subsequent caution when it was discovered the inner valve stem of his left-front tire had been knocked out – a similar problem had plagued the team in the spring race at Dover.
“A lug nut got in between the wheel and the brake rotor and knocked the valve stem out. Crazy,” Harvick said after the race. “We’re just handing out early Christmas presents to people for winning races that we should be winning.”
Harvick finished 13th and still easily advanced to the second round of the Chase.
With Harvick out of contention, Keselowski took over the lead and given his performances this season when he’s been out front, his chances at victory appeared good.
Gordon, however, was able to run him down and after the two battled through lapped traffic, Gordon emerged with a clear lead on Lap 304 of 400.
Gordon needed only to hold serve through a late-race round of green-flag pit stops to preserve his win.
In many ways, Sunday’s race turned out to be a microcosm of the season thus far with Harvick, Keselowski and Gordon all factoring into the outcome.
“I think today was good for us to see Jeff go out there and run them down,” said Gordon’s team owner, Rick Hendrick.
“You know, it seems like all year, the Penske cars are better on the short run, our cars are better on the long run, and you’re going to have to make adjustments if there’s a restart and it’s a short run.
“You know, it’s going to be a battle.”