LOUDON, N.H. — When he hopped out of his No. 24 Chevy a week ago at Chicagoland Speedway, practically swimming in the celebration of a sixth-place finish in the first race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Jeff Gordon was the portrait of a man playing with house money.
Two weeks ago, he wasn’t just on the verge of narrowly missing the Chase, he was being blocked out altogether.
If Michael Waltrip Racing had had its way, Gordon’s season would’ve essentially been done after the Federated Auto Parts 400 in Richmond.
It was there that MWR drivers Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers let Joey Logano pass them in order to push Gordon down in the points and guarantee MWR driver Martin Truex Jr. the final spot in the Chase.
Two days later, NASCAR stepped in, disqualifying Truex from the Chase and replacing him Ryan Newman.
But Gordon was still the odd man out.
When NASCAR then made the unprecedented decision to add Gordon as a special 13th driver in the Chase because of the Richmond shenanigans, Gordon admitted he had made it “under the most unbelievable circumstances I’ve ever been a part of in my racing career.”
For almost a week, Gordon was on the outside looking in. Now that he’s inside, the four-time Sprint Cup champion sees it as an opportunity to win his first title since 2001.
“Now the pressure’s on,” Gordon said. “Now that we’re in it, we want to show everyone why we’re in it and what we can do.”
Entering Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Gordon has reason to be confident. In 37 starts at NHMS, he’s won four poles, led 1,316 laps, taken three checkered flags, finished in the top five 16 times, and placed in the top 10 22 times. His average finish in Loudon is 10.5.
After being on the brink of a bitter end to an up-and-down season, he now sits seventh in the points going into a track where he feels comfortable.
“It certainly can [be a breakout race],” Gordon said. “I think what happens when you go to certain tracks that are good tracks and consistent tracks for you, you have an opportunity. It’s about capitalizing on that opportunity and making the most out of it and that’s the way I look at this track.
“Doesn’t guarantee anything. Doesn’t make the job any less hard. We’re going to have to fight and claw just like we have all year long to make it into the Chase and to get the results that we’ve had.”
At the same time, it’s an opportunity everyone’s trying to seize.
Matt Kenseth, at the top of the Chase standings after winning the opening race in Chicago, knows how important it is to perform as well as possible early in the 10 Chase races.
Even when he was in Victory Lane, his mind was already on New Hampshire. He gave himself the night to celebrate, but by noon the next day he said the wheels already were turning.
“Just ready to get to work on it,” Kenseth said. “Everything moves really fast. It’s a totally different racetrack. Totally different challenges. You battle different things than what you battle at Chicago, totally different style of racing in my mind. So I was just already trying to shift gears and trying to get ready for this week.”
Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson is looking for his first win since Daytona in July. His fifth-place finish last week in Chicago came after a bleak four-week stretch at the end of the regular season in which his best finish was a 28th in Atlanta.
He’s looking to press the reset button.
“When you get to the Chase, at least my focal point, you can’t look back on the regular season,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t matter if you dominated it or if you’ve been behind. It’s a 10-race stretch of its own. With that in mind, I haven’t won in a week. I finished fifth and had a shot to win last week. That’s how you have to look at it.
“So blinders on, focus on the 48, focus on what we need to do and not let the outside opinions be a distraction. We need to run our best 10 and I honestly feel if we put together our best 10 races we’ll be in contention for the championship.”
If anyone understands fresh starts, though, it’s Gordon, who can feel the new life pumping through his team with the second opportunity.
“What’s nice is when you claw and you fight and all of a sudden you start to see your car’s running better and your pit crew is putting good pit stops together and your restarts are better and the results are better,” Gordon said. “That’s what we saw last week in Chicago and that’s certainly what we hope to continue here.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.