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LONG POND, Pa. -- The skies were dark and a storm was approaching fast as Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway was about to restart on Lap 91.
"This restart is going to be it," crew chief Alan Gustafson radioed to Jeff Gordon, in sixth place with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson leading.
For the race and Gordon's season.
Johnson blew a tire and got sideways into second-place Matt Kenseth as they came into the first turn. With cars stacking up on the high lane behind them, Gordon surged down low to take the lead.
A few minutes later, the heavens opened.
|Jeff Gordon said his crew's job on his final pit stop made a huge difference in his Pocono victory.|
The driver with arguably the worst luck of the 2012 season needed something to climb back into Chase contention, and he got it with a gully-washer.
The rain-shortened victory put the four-time Cup champion in control of the second wild-card spot, with teammate Kasey Kahne and his two wins strengthening his No. 1 wild-card position with a second-place finish.
Gordon is tied with Ryan Newman for the second spot in wins and points, but would get the nod if the Chase cutoff came today based on having two fifth-place finishes to Newman's one.
"The way our year has gone we'll certainly take this," said Gordon, familiar with rain-shortened wins with his sixth out of 86 career victories. "I've never seen the sea part like that."
He didn't mean the rain that created what appeared to be a river in the 2.5-mile track built along Long Pond. He meant the sea of cars that flooded to the high lane and allowed him to luck into the win.
"All the things that have gone wrong for us this season, I'm hoping this is the one that makes up for it," Gordon said after ending a 31-race losing streak with his sixth Pocono win.
The bad luck on this day, which began with rain and ended with rain, went to Johnson. He appeared headed to a second-straight victory and fourth of the year when a tire went down to ignite the chain reaction.
Gordon felt badly for his teammate, but not that badly.
Not after what he has been through in a season that seemed left for dead two months ago.
"It's nice to know things can still go our way," Gordon said. "I hate it for [Johnson], but we haven't had a whole lot go our way all year."
That it did on this day was special in a lot of ways. This was the first time Gordon has been to Victory Lane with his wife and both children, albeit Victory Lane was moved from its usual location to the entrance of the garage because of the extreme weather.
"Today was an amazing experience for me, probably one of the best of my career," Gordon said. "With rain and lightning and wind blowing sideways I was just so excited to have my family here.
"I didn't care if it was under the shed over there in the garage."
And by the way, nobody is feeling badly for Gordon anymore.
Nor should they.
"Now we've got to watch out for him," Kahne said. "If those guys get a little confidence, as fast as they've been, they can be pretty tough each week."
The No. 24 team already is tough with six finishes of sixth or better in the last seven races.
"That team is capable of winning at any time," third-place finisher Martin Truex Jr. said. "I wouldn't count him out, that's for sure."
Don't count out anybody from Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon's jump from 22nd to 13th in the standings in seven weeks puts HMS in the once improbable position of putting all four cars in the Chase, as team owner Rick Hendrick predicted before the season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., despite a broken transmission that spoiled his day early after leading 17 laps, maintained the points lead because of Kenseth's misfortune on the restart. Johnson is in fourth place, eight points back, with Kahne and Gordon the current wild-card leaders.
"No, no," Gordon said of being back in Chase contention. "Typical media. You guys are getting ahead of yourselves here."
Not really. There has been a feeling for a while that if Gordon could get a win he could become a threat because he's been fast most of the year. Ironically, he got this win on a weekend when he qualified 27th and struggled to find speed in practice.
Something however did dampen Gordon's spirits when it was learned that 10 fans were injured -- one killed and another in critical condition -- after lightning struck behind the grandstands and near Gate 3. Gordon heard what he called a "huge, huge crack" when he was trying to get to Victory Lane.
"The fans are so loyal and so avid here," he said. "When we were going back to the garage area there was a group chanting up there that were not leaving."
Despite threatening skies, nobody left before the final restart that inevitably was going to be wild.
Most of the cars up front were on old tires that were gathering trash on each caution lap. Some were running short on fuel. Toss in a storm on the horizon and it looked like the final lap of the Daytona 500 as drivers scrambled for position.
Life can't get much better than it is right now. We knew how badly we needed a win, and we got it. That's half the battle. Now, in my opinion, it puts more pressure on us these next couple of weeks. But we're ready.” -- Jeff Gordon
"It's crazy," Gordon said as he described the restart. "It's absolutely crazy. We could have just as easily lost six positions instead of making up four or five."
Don't tell him it was luck. Gordon doesn't believe in luck, although he admitted this was the first time in weeks he hasn't had a lucky charm from a fan or his family in the car.
"That just tells you just work hard, win as a team," Gordon said with a smile.
Gustafson saw the craziness coming, but he was anticipating picking up a position or two, not a win.
"Everything matters to us, and we needed to get all we could get," he said.
Gustafson also saw the rain coming.
"Looks like rain is 3-4 miles out," he radioed Gordon as they ran under caution.
Replied Gordon, "Well, tell it to hurry the f--- up!"
You can't blame Gordon for being anxious. He had a win taken away at Martinsville when Clint Bowyer dive-bombed him and Johnson that took out both HMS drivers on a restart with two laps remaining.
Several other times Gordon has been in position to win, but was denied because of a mistake on pit road or a mistake of his own.
Things usually even out in racing, and perhaps this is the start that could propel Gordon to a fifth championship.
"That 'Drive for Five' has been kind of worn out," Gordon said of the phrase that has followed him since he won his fourth title in 2001. "Let's get in the Chase."
This was a good start. As dark as the skies were when Gordon was declared the winner, the outlook for the rest of his season became sunny.
"Life can't get much better than it is right now," Gordon said. "We knew how badly we needed a win, and we got it. That's half the battle. Now, in my opinion, it puts more pressure on us these next couple of weeks.
"But we're ready."