Jeff Gordon steals the show
And when the Sprint Cup Series regular season ended at 1:23 a.m. ET Sunday after three rain delays, Gordon had pulled off arguably the greatest second-place finish of his career.
Maybe in the history of NASCAR.
Second place to Clint Bowyer on a night when it appeared he wouldn't finish in the top 20 gave Gordon a three-point advantage over Busch for the second wild-card position and hope of adding a fifth championship to his Hall of Fame résumé.
Yes, Gordon is in the Chase, completing team owner Rick Hendrick's preseason prediction that all four Hendrick Motorsports cars would get in.
"We're going to kick their ass in the next 10 races," Gordon shouted over his radio after crossing the finish line.
If that happens, Gordon would complete the other part of Hendrick's preseason prediction that one of his drivers would win the title. The 12-point deficit to Denny Hamlin that Gordon has entering the Chase must feel like nothing compared to how far he came on this night to make it.
"When that was over, when they told me I was in the Chase, we made it, I mean, I was ecstatic," Gordon said. "I was going nuts. To me, when we have that kind of effort and finish second and almost win the race and make it in. ... I don't see any reason why we can't go over these next 10 races and be a real threat for the championship."
This wasn't an insane race in terms of wild-card candidates dumping each other to make the Chase.
But it was insane.
Gordon was a lap down in 26th place when the race was restarted on Lap 155 after a 50-minute rain delay. Busch was 11th.
The only suspense seemed to be whether the race would be completed or postponed until Sunday.
"I was not smiling," Gordon said. "I was pretty ticked off we got that far behind. Me, as a race car driver, when you have that kind of start to a race, you don't have any hope."
Then Gordon met with crew chief Alan Gustafson, who was confident looking over the data that they could turn things around with a little adjustment. OK, a big adjustment. Gustafson had the crew disconnect the chain to the rear sway bar to loosen up the car.
Chase for the Sprint Cup Standings
Denny Hamlin has qualified as the top seed for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
|1. Denny Hamlin|
|T-2. Jimmie Johnson|
|T-2. Tony Stewart|
|T-2. Brad Keselowski|
|T-5. Greg Biffle|
|T-5. Clint Bowyer|
|T-7. Dale Earnhardt Jr.|
|T-7. Matt Kenseth|
|T-9. Kevin Harvick|
|T-9. Martin Truex Jr.|
|T-9. Kasey Kahne|
|T-9. Jeff Gordon|
"He was right," Gordon said. "I still had a little doubt."
Then it took a huge break that also put Bowyer in position for the win. When a light shower brought out a caution on Lap 277, defending Cup champion Tony Stewart, Bowyer, Gordon and five other cars pitted immediately.
Hamlin, who had dominated to that point, and most of those immediately behind him stayed out in case the rain ended the race early. When it was evident the race would resume, those cars, including Busch, had to pit.
That thrust Stewart temporarily into the lead and Gordon into the mix, and left Busch screaming about how they'd messed up.
All of a sudden, a snoozer was replaced by high drama.
At one point, it looked like Ryan Newman might win his way into the Chase. Then Bowyer took charge.
The tension over the final 42 laps after Gordon pitted for the final time was as great as or greater than what we saw last season when Stewart won the final race with Carl Edwards second to claim his third title by virtue of a tiebreaker.
With 38 laps to go, Gordon was 11th and Busch was 18th, leaving Busch a handful of points in the lead for the wild card. With 28 to go, Gordon was eighth and Busch was 17th, leaving Gordon one point behind.
With 21 to go, they were tied.
With 10 to go and Gordon running third to Busch's 15th, an animated Gustafson told his driver he had to catch Mark Martin to have a chance. Not knowing whether Bowyer had enough fuel to make it, Martin figured he and Gordon were battling for the victory.
Gordon passed Martin with six to go and made up all but one of four seconds on Bowyer over the final four laps to finish second.
A dejected Busch dropped to 16th.
"My fault," Busch said at the end. "One-hundred percent my fault."
Not really. A mistake on a lug nut by the right rear tire changer on the final pit stop cost Busch a few positions that might have made the difference.
"It sucks to not have Kyle in the Chase," Hamlin said after finishing 18th.
Regardless, Gordon's heroic effort stole the show. It was like it was 1995 and Gordon was "Wonder Boy" again.
All the things that have gone wrong for us this year, everything went right for us tonight. I felt like I won the race tonight.” -- Jeff Gordon
"Went from last week, [from] being the most disappointed I've ever been to finish second, to the most excited I've ever been to finish second," said Gordon, who finished second to Hamlin last week at Atlanta. "Wow, what a race for us."
What a race for everyone who stayed awake to witness. It might have aged Busch by 10 years and taken 10 years off Gordon's age.
"Man, what a race to watch at the end," Stewart said.
It was worth the 90-minute rain delay to start the race and almost two hours of Hamlin making the first half boring.
"It was amazing," Gordon said. "I still can't believe we actually did it."
Thirteen races ago, Gordon was 22nd and wondering whether his Chase hopes were done. Today, he is talking about doing what Stewart did a year ago, going from a nonfactor to champion with five wins over the final 10 races.
"You can't really write anybody off in the Chase," Hamlin said.
You definitely can't write off Gordon. Everything from here on will be gravy.
"They know they've been strong all year," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will enter the Chase seeded seventh after his 14th-place finish. "They've just had some poor luck.
"As Denny said, every team in the Chase has an opportunity to win it, including Jeff."
The words "including Jeff"' must feel like winning the lottery for Gordon. At 41, he knows there might not be many more opportunities like this.
"All the things that have gone wrong for us this year, everything went right for us tonight," Gordon said. "I felt like I won the race tonight."
He basically did.
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