Monday, September 10, 2012

Hendrick Garage: Four cars bound for Chase with Gordon's wild card

Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne celebrate
Photo credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Four hundred laps, 12 drivers hungry for the Chase, but the question on everyone’s mind was would all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers make it into the "playoffs?"

For Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson their nights were simple. They had already been locked in the Chase for two weeks. Still, Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson each wanted to win for additional bonus points. Earnhardt Jr. started his night off right; he won the pole in Friday's qualifying. Johnson qualified fifth. With two teams locked in, the fate of teammates Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon depended on the wild card standing at the end of the race.

Kahne hadn’t locked his wild card in, but with two wins it was pretty certain he would be Chase- bound.  For Gordon, with one win and in 13th position, the outlook was bleak. He needed to race hard and finish at least 13 points ahead of Kyle Busch if he hoped to secure his spot. When he qualified second behind teammate Earnhardt Jr., Gordon’s chances looked somewhat brighter.

As the race unfolded, being a good teammate Earnhardt Jr. let Gordon have the lead to get a bonus point. Getting that one point would prove to be a deciding factor in Gordon’s Chase hopes. After Gordon led, Earnhardt Jr. quickly retook the position. Gordon started to have poor handling conditions that caused the No. 24 to drop through the field and by Lap 60, he'd fallen to 20th. The night seemed to get worse as those handling issues increased with each lap. On Lap 129 his hopes and chances of making the Chase dimmed as he went one lap down.

On Lap 152 the red flag was displayed for rain. Seeing his Chase hopes slip through his fingers a dejected Gordon told reporters, "It’s been a handful. We are working on it. We will just keep going until the race is over and get everything we can out of it. We missed it. It’s unfortunate, but a lot of racing left to go."

Finally, after 50 minutes delay, drivers returned to their cars. Crew chief Alan Gustafson called for adjustments for the No.24, hoping to get it turned around, going forward not backwards.  The adjustments worked and Gordon raced his way from 20th to 16th and was in the lucky dog position. Caution came out on Lap 275 - finally a little luck for Gordon, now he was back on the lead lap.

Gordon restarted 16th and quickly cracked the top 10 as the work of the pit crew propelled the team in the right direction. With 73 laps to go Gordon was running fifth. The wild card kept going from Kyle Busch to Gordon. It wasn’t certain who would receive it, but every position Gordon got went in his favor. With five laps to go, the wild card was still up in the air; Gordon was now second and hunting leader Clint Bowyer. He couldn't catch Bowyer, but he could celebrate making the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. Gordon could finally breathe easy knowing that his early season struggles were not in vain.

With Gordon and Kahne securing their places in the Chase via the wild card this marks the first time in history all four teams have made it into NASCAR's version of the playoffs. Will the Sprint Cup trophy return to the Hendrick Motorsports shop this year? Nothing is certain, but having all your teammates in the Chase could very well be a great advantage for the team


Hendrick Motorsports Chase Seeding:

With three wins, Jimmie Johnson starts the Chase in second.
With one win, Dale Earnhardt Jr. starts the Chase in seventh
With two wins and the first wild card spot, Kasey Kahne starts the Chase 11th
With one win and the second wild card spot, Jeff Gordon starts the Chase in 12th

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