RICHMOND, Va. — Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon felt like his hopes were dead in the water when NASCAR red-flagged his last chance to get into the playoffs because of rain at Richmond International Raceway.
His car wasn't running well in Saturday's Federated Auto Parts 400, and the chance seemed to be slipping away.
But just as adjustments made by his crew started to pay off for Gordon and he flew through the field to challenge for the lead, a gamble by Kyle Busch's team failed in the biggest way possible.
Thus Gordon, not Busch, grabbed the last spot in the Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship, the playoffs that begin next weekend.
The margin? Three points.
"I felt like I won the race," Gordon said early Sunday morning after finishing second to Clint Bowyer. The race, which ended about 1:25 a.m., was interrupted three times by rain, including the red-flag stoppage.
"When that was over, and they told me I was in the Chase, we made it, I mean, I was ecstatic. I was going nuts."
Gordon grabbed one of the two wild-card spots along with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne, 11th in points. The other 10 drivers had clinched Chase spots entering Saturday.
Gordon, who once dominated the sport, hasn't claimed a title since 2001. He has missed the playoffs just once but never had to scrap his way in like this.
"Went from last week being the most disappointed I've ever been to finish second to this week being the most excited I've ever been to finish second," he said. "Wow! What a race for us!"
Busch was left feeling the opposite after a nondescript race, especially for him at Richmond, where he had won four times including this May.
For much of the night, it seemed like Gordon's troubles would decide the issue.
Then the last caution flew briefly for rain on Lap 277 of 400. Gordon, who was a lap down, pitted for tires and fuel and got back on the lead lap as the first car one lap down, and Busch's crew chief Dave Rogers told his driver to stay out. It was a calculated risk that rain might linger and end the race early.
Instead, the weather cleared, and Gordon's car was suddenly among the fastest on the track. Busch was on old tires and a sitting duck for cars on fresh tires.
"We missed. That's it. Plain and simple," Busch said curtly after the race. He also declined to come to the media center, and Rogers took the blame.
"I blew it. There's no two ways to look at it," Rogers said.
As he drifted back in the field late in the race, Busch said little on his radio, seemingly realizing there was nothing he could do.
He had little to say to Rogers when they met postrace, either.
"You know, we were both speechless," Rogers said, describing their meeting after Busch limped home to finish 16th, losing a 12-point cushion over Gordon coming in. "Both of us are hurting, but we didn't say much."
Team owner Joe Gibbs offered Rogers words of encouragement.
"I think for all of us here, you just feel bad because of all that was put into this," Gibbs said, declining to reveal what he said to his crew chief.
Chase for the Championship races
Sunday: GEICO 400, Chicagoland Speedway, Joliet, Ill.
Sept. 23: Sylvania 300, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Loudon
Sept. 30: AAA 400, Dover (Del.) International Speedway
Oct. 7: Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500, Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway
Oct. 13: Bank of America 500, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Concord, N.C.
Oct. 21: Hollywood Casino 400, Kansas Speedway, Kansas City, Kan.
Oct. 28: Tums Fast Relief 500, Martinsville (Va.) Speedway
Nov. 4: AAA Texas 500, Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth
Nov. 11: Kobalt Tools 500, Phoenix International Raceway, Avondale, Ariz.
Nov. 18: Ford EcoBoost 400, Homestead-Miami Speedway