While it wasn't a trip to Victory Lane for the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet team, Jeff Gordon's third place finish boosted the 38-year-old Vallejo, Calif. native to his highest points position since last summer—second place.
Racing amongst in the Top 10 for a majority of the Coke Zero 400 powered by Coca-Cola, it was about the most solid performance (start to finish) since his near wins in the spring events at Martinsville, Phoenix, Texas, and Richmond.
However, his stellar finish could have easily been a trip to the garage area as it was a virtual "win" for the No. 24 unit.
On lap 147, contact between Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton triggered a massive 19 car crash between turns three and four, collecting the likes of Tony Stewart, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose, and Juan Pablo Montoya.
Driving just merely inches from that disaster was Jeff Gordon, who swooped his Chevrolet to the apron just in time before being collected in that pile of heap, reminiscent of Cole Trickle's drive in the dramatic, Hollywood "Big One" in the Daytona 500.
Almost like the Tim Richmond-like character, Gordon found himself in a position to win, finding himself in the lead in the last laps before being power-shuffled by the Richard Childress Racing duo of Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick. Ultimately, the No. 24 DuPont team placed third, with Harvick taking the checkers, Kasey Kahne finishing second, and Bowyer spinning out late to come home in a disappointing 17th-place spot.
As for Gordon, he was jubilant about finally coming home in one piece from a rowdy restrictor plate race.
"I'm just happy to survive one of these restrictor plate races," Gordon said in his post-race conference. "It's been a while since we done that. We had a pretty good night...we avoided the big ones and got ourselves in a good position to win the race."
Dropping back as low as 19th at one point in the 400-miler, Gordon and his DuPont team, led by crew chief Steve Letarte, kept battling and working on the handling of the No. 24 Chevrolet, reemphasizing their principle of "Refusing to Lose" and working cohesively as a single unit.
Even when the four-time series champion found himself a lap down, only to get the wave-by after staying out when the lead lap cars went down to pit lane for their stops, they still believed that they'd have a chance to make the most out of their night. Just within a matter of 10 laps, "Four-Time" went from running in the danger zone to relevancy, running in fifth position on lap 110.
Fast stops have been the name of the No. 24 team's pit crew's game all season long and it nearly paid off in a race win. Not since those glorious years with Ray Evernham at the helm on the pit box has Gordon's crew reeled off lightning fast stops.
On Saturday night, the "Rainbow Warriors" busted off their fourth Tissot Pit Road Precision Reward, spending the least amount of time on pit lane with a time of 217.313 seconds, taking the overall points lead in that program.
Despite those consolation prizes and a tremendous jump in the points race, climbing up to second position behind points leader Harvick, Gordon remains realistic and realizes ultimately what he and the No. 24 team have to do come September when the Chase for the Sprint Cup title ensues.
"It's about what we've got to do to win a championship," he said following the race. "I feel like we've got to get a few wins before that Chase starts."
If the Chase were to start now, despite Gordon's solid performances halfway in the season, he'd start the postseason in sixth position, 50 markers behind co-points leaders Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, somewhat not indicative of the kind of team that the No. 24 unit has been all season long.
While it may not be exactly realistic for the No. 24 group to reel off five wins in the next eight races, a pair of victories in the summer is not out of the question. He's been a threat in the past at the next several venues, having been a past winner at each facility, with Bristol as his best track (five wins).
Then there's his four career wins at tracks like Pocono, Indianapolis, Watkins Glen, and Atlanta, and you have a silent threat that's ready to make some noise in the dog days of summer—if the No. 24 is able to keep its momentum going during these next several hot weeks.
From Chicagoland to Richmond, it's quite certain that the FireStorm colors will be once again flying high in the playoffs in September, along with the likes of Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch. All of those racers have proven themselves consistently as a threat for the title, based on consistency and strong race performances week in and week out.
However, it's not quite written in stone as to who'll win these next events, as it may be another summer of domination by the No. 48 group or one where the dark horses of NASCAR ascend to the championship scene.
After all, who expected Kurt Busch or Kevin Harvick to reel off a pair of wins for their teams? Much less, who expected the No. 29 team to still be leading the points race halfway in the year?
Then again, in a season that's seen more twists and turns than a Perry Mason mystery, it's quite certain that the unexpected will happen down the stretch of this current season of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, with Jeff Gordon making his presence known for his prolonged "Drive for Five" campaign that's been stuck on fourth gear since 2002.
Will it finally be the year that NASCAR's former "Wonderboy" and "Kid" finally gets it done? Or will it be another season of a close call, tease, and disappointment for fans and observers of the No. 24 team?
Only time will tell. But based on the spring of confidence and strength of this team as a unit, it might just be the best year yet for the DuPont Chevrolet group, who may just realize that fifth championship after all.
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