WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Since a blown engine knocked him out of the Daytona 500 to start the Sprint Cup season, it's taken Jeff Gordon 20 races to drive into contention for NASCAR's postseason.
And he's there, finally. After notching his first victory of the season last week at Pocono, Gordon holds one of two wild cards and would make the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship if it began this week.
"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-five, top-10 the last eight weeks," Gordon said as he turned his focus to Sunday's race on the road course at Watkins Glen. "That's what's moved us up into the position we're in. That's what put us into position to win that race."
It's been a rough road for the four-time Cup champion, who has run up front much of the season only to see his team's efforts go for naught. Through the first 14 races of the 36-race season, Gordon's average finish was an uncharacteristic 20.714, placing him outside the top 20 in points.
Two wild cards for the Chase are awarded to the drivers with the most wins outside the top 10, but only those in the top 20 are eligible.
Before his 86th career win last week — he finally had a stroke of luck when leaders Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth tangled on a restart and Gordon slipped past unscathed into first, getting the victory when rain prevented the completion of the race — Gordon was an afterthought at best to make the Chase.
It's the wackiest season he's had since becoming a full-time Cup driver in 1993:
— In March at Bristol, the exhaust on teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car cut a tire on Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet and Gordon limped home 35th.
— Only half a lap from winning at tiny Martinsville in April, he was wrecked during a green-white-checkered finish and ended up 14th despite leading 328 laps.
— Gordon won the pole at Talladega, but a late crash doomed him to a 33rd-place finish.
— At Darlington, Gordon, third all-time with seven wins at the tricky egg-shaped speedway, had two flat tires and came home 35th.
— Seemingly in the clear of a late accident at Daytona a month ago, Gordon was hit from behind while heading to pit road but salvaged a 12th-place finish.
Instead of conceding, Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports team have persevered despite more than a few tense moments between Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson.
"When you go through something like that, it really tests you," said Gordon, who's reeled off six top-six finishes in seven races. "It tests every aspect of the team, personalities. It either pulls you apart or it brings you closer together. It's brought us closer and stronger together."
Watkins Glen International's high-speed, 2.45-mile layout with its 11 turns has been both good and bad to Gordon, the all-time leader in NASCAR with nine road course victories. He has four wins — second to Tony Stewart's five triumphs — six top-fives, nine top-10s, and two poles.
Although Gordon's last victory at The Glen was in 2001, he's been in contention since, most memorably in 2007. Gordon led 51 of the race's 90 laps and was two car-lengths ahead of Stewart with just two laps remaining, but a classic battle between NASCAR's two most successful road racers disappeared in the blink of an eye. Gordon spun off course on his own entering the first turn of lap 89 and finished ninth as Stewart celebrated in Victory Lane.
Fingers Lake 355
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