Jeff Gordon is clinging to the second and final Wild Card spot after a wacky win at Pocono
Eight weeks ago, it seemed unthinkable that four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon could even challenge for a spot in the 2012 Chase for the championship.
NASCAR's top circuit had just left the 2.5-mile triangle in Long Pond, Pennsylvania, and one of the sport's star drivers was coming off his latest disappointment.
In a year that, up to that point, had included a flip, two races plagued by blown tires and a raucous finish in a race at Martinsville where Gordon should have earned Hendrick Motorsports win No. 200, Gordon left Pocono Raceway on the heels of a speeding penalty that relegated him to a 19th-place finish.
Gordon sat 22nd in the standings with just three top-10 finishes and little shot at making a run at NASCAR's postseason.
Fast-forward to a stormy Sunday afternoon at that same Pocono Raceway, where Gordon stood in a makeshift Victory Lane in the Sprint Cup garage area after a stunning upset victory he earned on the race's final restart.
"If that was the first race we ever won, I certainly wouldn't want to win it that way," Gordon said on Tuesday's NASCAR teleconference.
But win it he did. And now Gordon, once considered a Chase afterthought, holds the second and final Wild Card spot in the Chase with a slew of tracks ahead on the schedule where he has had immense success.
Following his win at Pocono, it seemed as though Gordon had come from nowhere. After all, over the last few weeks the Chase discussion has centered around one-win drivers Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano.
So, how exactly did Gordon get into Chase contention? He went on:
"I don't think a lot of people have really even put much emphasis and recognize, other than ourselves, how consistently we've been top 5, top 10 the last eight weeks. That's what's moved us up into the position we're in. That's what put us into position to win that race on Sunday."
With his victory on Sunday, Gordon now has six top-10 finishes in his last seven races, with the only exception being a 12th-place effort in the crapshoot race at Daytona on July 7.
During that span, Gordon has climbed from 22nd to 13th in the standings.
If you're one of those fans who had Gordon written off in the Chase conversation a few weeks ago, you're not alone. Just two races ago, Gordon sat 17th in the standings and was still behind all three of the aforementioned drivers with one victory.
Heck, even Gordon didn't believe he actually had a shot at making NASCAR's version of the playoffs:
"[F]our [or] five weeks ago I don't know if we really felt legitimately there was a shot at us getting into the Chase."
Now that there is a legitimate chance, Gordon feels that the pressure level has actually gone up:
"Now there is more pressure...We knew how badly we needed one win. Now we've got one win. Hopefully we cannot only just keep the momentum going but take on that extra pressure of we do have a shot at it now and step up."
With that one win and his recent performance, Gordon is now in a position to not only make the Chase, but also become NASCAR's fourth five-time Sprint Cup champion.
But, in order to become only the second driver to win a title under both the old pre-Chase format and the current format, Gordon knows it will be a lot more challenging than it was when he won his other four Cups, the most recent of which came back in 2001:
"[The sport is] certainly far more competitive from the rules that NASCAR has provided us on how we build the cars as well as the teams and the drivers. Everybody has just gotten better and smarter[since 2001].
I think, you know, there's times when [aerodynamics] definitely makes it harder to pass, harder to get side-by-side.
From a pure competitive standpoint, driving the cars in traffic and racing around the competitors, I kind of like the old-school stuff. But I think most guys that have been in this sport for 20 years would probably say that. Some of my best years were in the mid-to-late '90s when that's the way the cars were."
How will Jeff Gordon's season end?
Though Gordon is more of a fan of the old-school racing, he's done a fine job of adapting to today's racing. After all, he did win three races in 2011 and could have more victories this year if not for some tough luck.
For Gordon to win his first championship in over 10 years, however, it's going to take just a little more work, and possibly a win, in order for him to make the Chase.
Riding this recent wave of momentum, he should be able to do it.
And, if he can make the Chase, it may just be Jeff Gordon who stands on the frontstretch at Homestead in November holding his fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series trophy.
All quotes were obtained via Tuesday's NASCAR teleconference with Jeff Gordon unless otherwise noted.