LOUDON, N.H. — Jeff Gordon came to New Hampshire saying he needed “something miraculous’’ to happen to keep from falling out of contention in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
Gordon, the four-time NASCAR champion who never has won a title under the Chase format, fought his way into the 12-man Chase field with back-to-back runner-up finishes in Atlanta and Richmond that helped him clinch the second of two wild-card berths.
Gordon’s enthusiasm over making the Chase was tempered when he crashed while running fourth on Lap 189 and finished 35th in the first race of the Chase at Chicagoland Speedway.
Though he came to New Hampshire 47 points out of the Chase lead and 12th in the standings, Gordon left the Granite State in a better frame of mind after he captured the pole and finished third behind winner Denny Hamlin in Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
“Today was crucial to have that kind of finish and result,’’ said Gordon, who remained 12th in the standings after gaining only two points. “You know, on one hand you look at it and say, ‘Man, we let a top 5 get away from us [at Chicago]. Last week we were running fourth when we had the problem, and this week we come back and finish third.’’
It allowed Gordon to fight another day in the next race at Dover, Del.
“We are just going to fight from here on out and try to get some consistent finishes and win races and fight and battle,’’ Gordon said. “I mean, this team has gotten kind of used to this stuff all year long.
“We just have had everything thrown at us this year, and I think it’s made us stronger and more prepared to handle these types of things, even when the pressure is on for the championship. So it allowed us to come in here, sit on the pole and finish third, and have a good weekend and we’ll take that.’’
Hamlin’s dominant victory delivered car owner Joe Gibbs, the Hall of Fame NFL coach, his 100th career NASCAR victory. Gibbs, who won three Super Bowl titles with the Washington Redskins, entered the NASCAR series in 1992 and won three championships, one with former driver Bobby Labonte and two with Tony Stewart. Hamlin’s victory gave Gibbs 100 career NASCAR triumphs with six different drivers over 23 tracks.
“It was a huge day for us,’’ Gibbs said. “Bobby Labonte came to Victory Circle. And I appreciated Bobby, Dale Jarrett, Jimmy Makar, everybody when we first started, Tony, so it took a lot of people.
“But certainly, gosh, think back on my 21 years [in NASCAR], it just doesn’t seem like it was that long ago and you realize that we’ve got 100 wins; that was a huge deal for us.’’
Kyle Busch started in second position, just behind Gordon. On Lap 46, Busch nosed past Gordon and stayed in front for 48 laps. Clean air, however, didn’t do Busch much good.
An undetermined under-the-hood problem sapped the No. 18 of its power. Busch finished two laps down in 28th place.
Busch’s most valuable move was to help Hamlin, his teammate.
Halfway through the race, a piece of trash stuck on Hamlin’s grill, threatening to spike his water temperature. Busch took his foot off the gas, allowing Hamlin to approach him from behind. The draft between the two Gibbs cars shook the trash free from the No. 11’s grill.
“Unfortunately we picked up a miss under the hood,” said crew chief Dave Rogers. “Toyota does a great job for us. They’ll bring it back to the shop, figure it out, and make it better.”
Two is better
Brad Keselowski entered Sunday as the Chase points leader, three ahead of second-place Jimmie Johnson. At the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway, Keselowski will be 1 point behind Johnson, 2,096-2,095.
Had it not been for a late call by crew chief Paul Wolfe, Keselowski might not be so close.
During the fourth and final caution, most of the leaders, including race leader Hamlin, changed four tires. Wolfe went with two. Partly because of the speedy pit stop, Keselowski finished in sixth place. It was a respectable result, considering the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge didn’t crack the top 10 for most of the day.
“I didn’t realize some guys were doing four,” Wolfe said. “I thought it worked out well for us to jump some guys like that. I thought most of them were going to do two. I thought two was fine for us. We were able to get some track position. Our car was better on four today than two. But the way the strategy played out, I think it worked out well for us.”
When Frank Stoddard, a former NASCAR crew chief-turned-car owner of FAS Lane Racing, agreed to field a car for Mike Olsen, his boyhood buddy from North Haverhill, N.H., it wasn’t with the intent of starting the Sylvania 300 and then parking it. Quite the contrary. Olsen went the distance in the No. 32 North Country Ford, finishing 11 laps down in 33d for an $81,735 payday. It was the Sprint Cup debut for Olsen, 44, who said it was likely to be his last race . . . Dover is the track where Johnson has won more than any other, doing so seven times to tie Richard Petty and Bobby Allison for all-time wins at the track. “You know, when you get to the Chase, you need to execute on your great tracks and get the results you should there,’’ said Johnson, who has three wins, eight top 5s, 14 top 10s, and an average finish of 9.5 in 22 career starts at NHMS. “This track has been hit-or-miss for us over the years, so to come out of here in second, I’m real happy with today.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.