RICHMOND, Va. — Jeff Gordon rolled into Richmond International Raceway last year with his season on the line, locked in a tight battle with Kyle Busch for one of the last spots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
His hopes were nearly dashed as soon as the race began.
Gordon’s car was barely drivable and he struggled to keep pace, falling a lap down early. But the race was stalled by three different rain showers, his Hendrick Motorsports team made major adjustments to his Chevrolet, and Gordon used a vintage drive to storm through the field and finish second — claiming his spot in the Chase.
So as he heads into Saturday night’s race as one of 10 drivers jockeying for the five remaining Chase berths, Gordon knows nothing is out of reach.
‘‘Well, after last year, this is going to be easy,’’ he said. ‘‘We went through so much last year that I think it allows us to be more relaxed, be more prepared knowing that you got to race as hard as you can until the final lap. I think the way [last year] prepared us was knowing no matter what happens, you can’t ever give up. You just have to put every bit of effort into every single moment, every lap. If the car’s off, you've got to work on it. Sometimes take big swings at it. If your car’s perfect, don’t get complacent.’’
That’s the lesson all eligible drivers will take into Saturday night.
‘‘What Jeff did last year is impressive because he was laps down early in the race,’’ Jamie McMurray said. ‘‘I remember passing Jeff, his car was terrible. Normally when your car is that bad at the start of the race you can’t fix it unless something is broke and you replace that part. I was shocked to see that he was able to race his way back up. That was super impressive.’’
Breathing a little easy heading into the deciding race is Dale Earnhardt Jr., ranked seventh in the Sprint Cup standings. Although he’s winless this season, he’s got a 37-point cushion on 11th-place and needs only to finish 32d or better Saturday night to clinch a spot in the top 10.
‘‘We've had enough good runs over the last couple weeks to put ourselves in this situation, not to have to be nervous or worried,’’ Earnhardt said. ‘‘We’re not locked in by no means, but we’re in a comfortable enough position to be able to pay attention to the race we’re running.’’
Joey Logano is eighth in points, with a win to fall back on, and can clinch a top-10 spot with a finish of 11th or better. His victory makes him eligible for a wild card if he falls outside the top 10. Logano, who has not finished lower than eighth in the last six races, is seeking his first career Chase berth.
‘‘The momentum that this team has got right now, it’s hard not to have confidence,’’ he said.
Greg Biffle is ninth in points, has a victory and clinches a top-10 spot with a finish of ninth or better.
Kurt Busch is one of the most compelling story lines as he seeks to become the first driver for a single-car organization to make the Chase. It would come two seasons after his career was derailed following his firing from Penske Racing.
Although he’s winless on the season, he’s ranked 10th in points, holds a six-point edge over 11th, and wraps up a Chase berth by finishing second with at least one lap led or finishing third with the most laps led. He would have to be overtaken by at least one (and possibly more) of the six drivers behind him.
He’s leaving Furniture Row Racing at the end of the season to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing, but said he thinks his tiny team can win a championship before he goes.
‘‘We can contend. I'm optimistic about it,’’ he said.