Jeff Gordon rallied from a rough start in Saturday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at Richmond International Raceway to take runner-up honors and earn his spot in the upcoming Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
From a “handful” to the fastest car on track, Gordon’s No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet steadily improved during the sometimes soggy 400-lap affair at Richmond on Saturday. Gordon initially called his car a handful after racing action was halted for rain at Lap 152. After a 51-minute red-flag period and ensuing adjustments by the No. 24 team, Gordon earned his way back onto the lead lap and then cracked the top five. He crossed the finish line second in the 400-lap event, which finished early Sunday morning. Kasey Kahne also earned his wild card berth into the Chase after finishing 12th. Their Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., already locked into the Chase, finished 13th and 14th, respectively.
“Man, that was an awesome end for us,” Gordon said. “I’m so fired up to get this Chase started. I don’t care where we’re going to start in points. We’re in it.”
This marks the first time in which all four Hendrick Motorsports teammates have qualified for the postseason since the Chase format was implemented in 2004. To date, the best Hendrick Motorsports finish in the Chase was 2009 when its qualifying drivers Johnson, Mark Martin and Gordon finished one-two-three.
Johnson, who recorded three victories this season, will be ranked second going into the Chase-opening event at Chicagoland. Earnhardt ranks seventh with one win. Kahne and Gordon, wild card recipients, rank 11th and 12th, respectively, and will not recieve bonus points for their regular-season wins.
Kasey Kahne’s No. 5 Quaker State Chevrolet:
Richmond finish: 12th.
Race recap: Kasey Kahne opened Saturday’s rain-delayed race from the 21st position and improved to run 11th within the first 20 green-flag laps. By Lap 45, Kahne had cracked the top 10, and despite issues with his radio communication, the driver of the No. 5 Quaker State Chevrolet continued his climb through the field. On Lap 120, Kahne was running eighth. When the fourth caution flag was waved on Lap 138 – this one for rain fall on the .75-mile track—Kahne made a quick four-tire stop during the yellow-flag period and left pit road running fifth, which is where he was when the red flag was waved at Lap 152.
After a 51-minute delay, the red flag was lifted and the cars returned to green-flag racing. Kahne turned lap times faster than the leader and improved one spot to run fourth by Lap 165. Forty-seven laps later, Kahne was running second with what he considered a No. 5 Chevy that was relatively unchanged on the longer runs. On a Lap 275 caution, the No. 5 team stopped for four tires, fuel and adjustments. Kahne lined up on the front row for the Lap 283 restart and immediately took the lead, with Johnson behind him on the second row. With fresh tires, Kahne distanced himself briefly before opting to settle into the pack and play it safe with a solid running position. With 76 laps to go, Kahne made a green-flag stop, ultimately to achieve more rear grip with his tires.
Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet:
Richmond finish: Second.
Race recap: Gordon was ranked 13th in the driver standings entering Saturday’s race and needed a strong showing to contend for a wild card spot in the 10-race playoff, which begins Sunday, Sept. 16 at Chicagoland Speedway. The driver of the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet started from the outside pole position, but almost immediately encountered a handling issue and subsequently went a lap down prior to a mid-race red-flag period. Upon returning to the track, crew chief Alan Gustafson implemented some adjustments similar to the setup used by teammate Jimmie Johnson, and Gordon rocketed from 20th to run 16th and be the first car eligible for the Lucky Dog pass. When the caution flag was waved on Lap 275 for rain, Gordon returned to the lead lap and made a pit stop for Gustafson to further tweak the No. 24 Chevy. Gordon restarted 16th on the Lap 283 restart and cracked the top 10 by Lap 296.
Gordon climbed to run fifth with 73 laps to go and continually chipped away at the lead held by Kyle Busch, the lone wild card chase contender ranked ahead of him in the postseason hunt. Busch opted to stop as the laps unfolded and had a miscue on pit road that cost him position and tentatively gave Gordon the No. 2 spot in the wild card hunt. With 57 laps to go and running fifth, Gordon reported to his crew that the handling was starting to fade. Gordon pitted with 42 laps to go for a track bar adjustments, four fresh tires and enough fuel to reach the grand finale of the 400-lap event. The stop helped his car, but temporarily knocked him out of wild-card contention before Gordon passed the lapped cars and then-leader Clint Bowyer to return to the lead lap. With five laps left, Gordon improved to take second and was tracking Bowyer, who held a five-second lead. Coming to the final lap, Gordon knocked down Bowyer’s lead to two seconds, but didn’t have enough to reach and took runner-up honors.
Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet:
Richmond finish: 13th.
Race recap: Jimmie Johnson opened Saturday’s race at Richmond from fifth and held his spot inside the top five once the green flag dropped at Lap 7 after an early caution for rain. Crew chief Chad Knaus coached Johnson through restarts early in the race, and the driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet improved one spot at Richmond, where track position is critical. On Lap 96, Knaus warned Johnson about weather in the area. Knaus said, “Radar showing it should probably be raining now.” Johnson replied, “Cool.” And within the next 52 laps, the yellow flag was waved as rain drops fell onto the .75-mile track. By Lap 152, the red flag was waved, and NASCAR officials ordered the cars to pit road. Johnson, who pitted during the previous yellow-flag period, was running fourth at the time.
The pace car led the field back to green on Lap 156, and after a nearly 51-minute red-flag delay, Johnson opened green-flag racing six laps later competing with Earnhardt for third. Johnson’s car, which he admitted during the rain delay was better on shorter runs, ultimately began to fade, and by Lap 182, Knaus started helping then-fifth-place Johnson experiment with different lines to find out where the No. 48 Chevy runs best. During ensuing green-flag stops, Johnson climbed to take the lead briefly before pitting for adjustments to improve the handling of the No. 48 Chevy. Rain prompted another caution flag – this time on Lap 275 – and Johnson didn’t pit after a brief miscommunication with Knaus. Johnson remained on track in the fifth position, but his tires became an issue and he slipped off the lead lap. The driver of the No. 48 Chevy rolled onto pit road with 74 laps left on the board. Johnson returned to the track and held on during the final laps to finish 13th.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet:
Richmond finish: 14th.
Race recap: Dale Earnhardt Jr. lined up from the pole position for the first time of his career on Saturday at Richmond International Raceway and was credited as leading the first six laps, which were held under a yellow flag as the rain conditions cleared. When the green flag dropped on Lap 7, Earnhardt’s teammate Jeff Gordon took the lead briefly before the driver of the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet reclaimed the top spot on Lap 9. Earnhardt was continually successful on restarts and led four times for 64 laps before the red flag was waved for rain. Earnhardt, who pitted before the red flag for four tires, fuel and adjustments, was running second at the time.
Earnhardt returned to the lead after the pace car led the field back to green on Lap 156, but soon encountered a loose-handling condition that affected his position. As Earnhardt’s condition worsened, the driver of the No. 88 Chevy slipped into the top 10. Crew chief Steve Letarte made the necessary adjustments during green-flag pit stops on Lap 232. The No. 88 team capitalized on another yellow-flag period on Lap 275, pitting for adjustments. AS the race unfolded, Earnhardt deftly maneuvered the anxious traffic on the .75-mile track and held on to finish 14th.