RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — With his season essentially on the line, Jeff Gordon used a vintage drive to rally his way into NASCAR's championship chase.
The 41-year-old Gordon battled an ill-handling car early Saturday night, then took off at the end to finish second to race winner Clint Bowyer at Richmond International Raceway. His finish wrested the final berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship away from Kyle Busch.
"How 'bout Gordon!" yelled winner Bowyer, "he was terrible all night!"
Not when it mattered.
The four-time NASCAR champion got major adjustments to his Chevrolet through the race, fell a lap down, then nearly drove the wheels off in his bid to pick up as many positions as possible. He trailed Busch by 12 points at the start of the race, and beat him by three to claim the final spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field.
"I felt like we won the race," Gordon said. "What that was over, they told me I was in the Chase, we made it — I was ecstatic. I was going nuts.
"To me, after you have that kind of effort, fall back, them come up there and finish second, almost win the race."
Busch finished 16th, fading after poor pit strategy and a slow final stop to miss the Chase for the second time in his career. Team owner Joe Gibbs met Busch on pit road and leaned into the car window to console the angry driver.
"We missed. That's it. Plain and simple," said Busch, adding Gibbs told him, "'Handle it the right way.' There's no right way to handle this situation."
It was opposite emotions on pit road, as Gordon's team celebrated. He qualified second, but was terrible early in a race that was marred by three different rain showers. The start was delayed almost two hours, and a second shower caused a stoppage that lasted just under 52 minutes.
Gordon was livid when he exited his car on pit road during the red flag.
"I was pretty ticked off that we got that far behind," Gordon said. "When you have that kind of a start to a race, you don't have a lot of hope that you're going to get it turned around."
But his Hendrick Motorsports team got it figured out during the third and final rain shower.
NASCAR called a caution for rain, and Gordon was one of eight top drivers to head to pit road. Denny Hamlin, the leader, stayed out apparently in a strategy that relied on the race being stopped once and for all for rain.
Instead, NASCAR went back to green and Hamlin led a group of drivers down pit road in a desperate late pit stop. Busch was part of a group that had pitted shortly before the rain so he stayed out and was fourth on the restart. But everyone who had pitted at the start of the caution was on fresh tires — Gordon included — and they quickly drove through the field.
It put Busch back in traffic, and when he finally did go to pit road, a slow stop further hurt his chances.