At 43, Jeff Gordon entered the season answering questions about retirement.
After wins at Kansas, Indianapolis, Michigan and Dover for his first four-win season since he had six in 2007, the four-time NASCAR champion is answering questions about winning a fifth and hitting the 100-victory mark.
“I don’t think we’re going to get to 100 this year,” Gordon said, “but I hope we get past 93. That would be pretty awesome to get a couple more.”
Just enough to guarantee him a spot in the winner-takes-all championship race.
Gordon doused Team Penske’s hot streak with a champagne bath in Victory Lane, securing an emphatic automatic spot in the next round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
But Gordon’s entry in the field of 12 was all but guaranteed even before he dominated the closing laps Sunday at Dover International Speedway. What wasn’t so sure was that Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne was coming along for the ride.
Kahne survived a bumpy 400 miles, falling four laps back before rallying for a 20th-place finish to nab the 12th and final spot in the field.
“Kasey made it a pretty long day,” owner Rick Hendrick said. “We were watching the monitor at the end of the race hoping that we didn’t have a caution and Jeff could win it and Kasey could get in. I didn’t know exactly how close it was going to be until I watched that monitor.”
NASCAR tried to manufacture drama in its 10-race Chase format with a revamped formula for crowning a champion this season. Under NASCAR’s elimination format, four drivers will be knocked out after every third race. Dover marked the third race.
That meant plenty of nerves all around the track – and tons of scoreboard watching.
Kurt Busch, AJ Allmendinger, Greg Biffle and Aric Almirola were eliminated from championship contention. Four more drivers will drop out following the next three-race segment that starts next week at Kansas Speedway.
Gordon joined Chase winners Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano as the three drivers who were guaranteed a berth in the next Chase round with victories.
“I think it makes a statement of what type of team we are,” Gordon said after his fourth win of the season and 92nd overall. “I think that it makes a statement that we’re a team to beat for this championship.”
Kevin Harvick also advanced, along with the Hendrick duo of Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin was the lone driver of the bottom four entering Dover to race his way into the top 12. The points will reset for the Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega bracket.
“The tracks just keep getting better for us as the Chase goes on,” Hamlin said. “This is going to be a great comeback story.”
Gordon won for the fifth time at Dover and first since 2001, when he won the last of his four Cup championships.
“I’m excited about our chances, not just these next three, but all the way to Homestead,” Gordon said.
Some things of note at the Dover race:
THAT’S GOT TO BE KAHNE! With crew chief Kenny Francis steadying the course after rough pit stops on the No. 5, Kahne survived a scramble that saw him nudge out Allmendinger for the final spot.
“I never really got nervous at all and I just raced real hard the whole time,” Kahne said. “Kenny started telling me we were tied for 12th and this was with 30 to go. Then he would tell me we were one point in and then maybe two points in, and then he wasn’t positive. Then I started getting a little bit worried, so it was intense inside the car.”
DOVER AND OUT: Allmendinger fell two points shy of the cutoff. Busch was six off, Biffle seven and Almirola 18.
UNDERDOGS SLEEP: Allmendinger and Almirola were the underdogs of the Chase, the two drivers nobody thought could win the championship.
Almirola made the Chase by winning the rain-shortened July race at Daytona, where he gave Hall of Famer Richard Petty his first win in 15 years. Allmendinger used a gritty drive on the road course at Watkins Glen to score his first Cup win and put tiny JTG/Daugherty Racing into the Chase.
“It just didn’t work out for us. I hate it,” Almirola said. “We picked a bad day to run the way we did and we can’t blame anybody but ourselves. My car didn’t have any grip. You can’t go fast without grip.”
HARVICK SLUMPS: Harvick appeared to have the car to beat and led a whopping 223 laps from his seventh pole of the season until he suffered tire woes and finished 13th.
“We can beat every car on the race track. We just need some good luck,” Harvick said. “If we get some luck, we’ll win races and have a shot at the championship.”
START OVER: Logano’s win at New Hampshire won’t help him moving forward because of the new format. He’s in the same boat as 11 other drivers.
“As consistent as we’ve been and as good as we’ve been running I hate to see it reset,” he said. “You’re like, `Alright, this is three good finishes, a win in there, this feels good,’ but now we’re all tied again so it’s like that’s all out the window. It’s nice we’re able to go to the next round, but after that it’s over and you’ve got to start over and go again.”