CHICAGO — The results were the same, but Jeff Gordon couldn’t have gone through a bigger swing of emotions from his last lap at Atlanta Motor Speedway to his last lap in the next NASCAR Sprint Cup event at Richmond International Raceway.
He ran the gamut from smoldering disappointment to unbridled euphoria.
The four-time Cup champion was glum about his chances of making the 12-driver field for the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship after he came up short on his attempt to pass Denny Hamlin in the last corner of the last lap and finished as runner-up in Atlanta.
“Jeff was sort of beating himself up at the end in Atlanta because he felt he should’ve moved Denny,’’ said car owner Rick Hendrick. “He had such a run, he could have gone under him and moved him up, but he tried to do it the hard way around the top, and he was upset with himself about that.’’
Although he was unable to better his result in Richmond, where he finished second to Clint Bowyer, Gordon’s disposition was greatly improved after he overcame a lengthy rain delay, an ill-handling car, and the longest of odds to climb one spot to 12th in the driver standings in the final race of the regular season.
“Went from being the most disappointed I’ve ever been to finish second to the most excited I’ve ever been to finish second,’’ Gordon said after he clinched the second of the Chase’s two wild-card berths over Kyle Busch by 3 points, 777-774.
That scant margin could be traced to the crucial number of points Gordon was awarded for his lone victory of the season in a rain-shortened affair Aug. 5 at Pocono, Pa.
Gordon was the last of Hendrick Motorsports’s four cars to qualify for the Chase.
“Oh my gosh, I’ll be honest, I genuinely felt for Kyle after that race,’’ Gordon said. “My wife and I talked about . . . how that very easily could’ve been us.’’
Gordon, who started the Richmond race 12 points behind Busch, was running a lap down in 26th when rain stopped the race after 154 of 400 laps. Once the race resumed, Gordon worked his way back, regaining his lost lap when precipitation slowed the race on Lap 282.
With 22 laps remaining, crew chief Alan Gustafson ordered his driver to “go as hard as you can.’’
Gordon began picking off drivers, passing Brad Keselowski for fifth on Lap 379, Matt Kenseth for fourth four laps later, and Hamlin for third five laps after that. He climbed to second when he passed Mark Martin after another five laps.
“How we went through so many emotions this year and in that race, and to come out on top, there’s just jubiliation and excitement and overwhelming emotions of joy,’’ said Gordon, who finished 1.1 seconds behind Bowyer. “But we very easily could’ve been devastated. ‘’
Run of bad luckAt 41, happily married with two kids, Gordon is the second-oldest driver in the Chase field behind Tony Stewart (by two months and 15 days, to be precise). But Gordon had to overcome one of the most difficult seasons he’s ever had at Hendrick Motorsports to qualify for the Chase after starting out 35th in the points when an engine failure left him 40th in the season-opening Daytona 500.
It was the first of four DNF’s for Gordon this season.
“I was saying to Jeff, ‘Look, you have had some awesome years, but you have had the worst of luck this season than at any time you have driven for me,’ ” Hendrick said. “White flag, he’s leading the race at Martinsville [and finishes ninth after leading 329 laps]. I can think back to leading at Kansas and breaking a motor.
“I can think of all the things — the wrecks, the [ruptured] water hose after running third at Daytona and burning up a motor . . .
“I mean I can think back to all of that stuff and say, ‘Man, this has been the worst year in the world, but you’ve had speed, and whatever happens, happens and we’ll just go on.’
“But I could tell after Atlanta, it was really eating at him.’’
Sensing his window of opportunity drawing to a close, Gordon pushed even harder to make the Chase. It explains why he agreed with Darrell Waltrip, who described Gordon’s battle to make the Chase as “the defining moment’’ of his career.
“This really is a defining moment for me at this stage of my career,’’ said Gordon, who is NASCAR’s active career leader with 86 victories and more than $127 million in career earnings.
“Not making this Chase could have had devastating results. For Kyle, it’s not. This kid is talented, great team, and they’re going to be battling for more championships in years to come. But, for me, I don’t know how many more opportunities there are.’’
Although teammate Jimmie Johnson passed him in 2010 by winning his unprecedented fifth NASCAR title in a row, Gordon never coasted, even though none of his championships came under the Chase format, in which his best finish was runner-up in 2007.
Gordon is joined in this Chase by Johnson, along with Hendrick teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne (who earned the other wild-card berth).
“While I know we’re all competitive and good teams, I didn’t feel like we were going to be the one kind of on the outside, looking in, scraping and fighting to claw our way in at the last race,’’ Gordon said. “I just didn’t think that.
“But to be in that position, it was extremely important to me to not be getting that call from Rick of, ‘I’m sorry, buddy, it didn’t work out.’ It was, ‘That’s awesome, that’s great. You’re the man.’
“It was a pride thing, I think, that came into play and at this point in my career. I appreciate things like this, and I look at them more as defining moments of where I’m at as I wind down my career.’’
Sense of urgency
It seemed implausible that Gordon, who has qualified for the Chase the last seven years, would begin contemplating his exit strategy from the sport, especially after missing the Chase only once in 2005.
“I don’t think of it that way, but I do get asked the question all the time,’’ Gordon said. “When D.W. makes comments like the ones he makes, then I’m going to call myself out. It’s true, I don’t have 10 years to be doing this.’’
Gordon will enter Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway 12th in the Chase standings, 47 points behind leader Keselowski. Last Sunday, in the first race of the Chase at Chicagoland, an accident on Lap 189 caused Gordon to finish 35th.
But it did little to diminish Gordon’s excitement about making the Chase.
“My wife and I really went through how great it was [to make the Chase], but how easily it could’ve been us, going through the same emotion of not making it,’’ Gordon said. “That makes us appreciate very much of being in it and it’s certainly given us a whole new life.
“You go from doubting and questioning to, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe how that race went! We’re going to go kick their butt over these next 10 weeks,’ ’’ Gordon said. “It’s funny how that moment can make you feel that way.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.