Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Sports

Kenseth ties Johnson at top as Gordon wins NASCAR race at Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Jeff Gordon used an unprecedented NASCAR chairman's selection to get into the Chase for the Championship 48 hours before the opening race. Now Gordon is trying to parlay that exemption from Brian France into a fifth Sprint Cup title.

Gordon moved into the title picture Sunday with a win in the Goody's 500 at Martinsville Speedway, his first of the season, to move from fifth to third in the Chase standings behind co-leaders Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson with three races remaining.

Not too bad for the guy who started as the 13th driver in the Chase when France decided Gordon had been denied the ability to fairly race his way into the 12-driver field by the manipulations of at least three other organizations at Richmond.

"I don't like how we got in it, being an added 13th team," Gordon said. "But we're certainly not going to say, 'No, we won't take it.' We wanted to be in it. We feel like we were in a position to earn our way into it, and I think that this team would have performed like this whether we were in it or not.

"To me, that decision just meant that what we're going to be racing for is a championship instead of for ourselves and pride."

It was Gordon's eighth career win at Martinsville but his first since he swept the two races at the track in 2005. He's tied with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson for Martinsville victories, but both trail Richard Petty (15) and Darrell Waltrip (11) on the career list.

Most important, though, is that Gordon is just 27 points behind Kenseth and Johnson as they head to Texas Motor Speedway. Kevin Harvick is 28 points out and Kyle Busch 36.

"I do feel like it's plausible," Gordon crew chief Alan Gustafson said. "I think we can go win these next three races, and I think that anything can happen. It's not going to be easy, never is easy; it's not going to be easy for them, either."

Kenseth led a race-high 202 laps and was in front on the final restart with 77 laps remaining and Gordon lurking in third. Gordon stalked him for more than 50 laps before taking the lead with 21 laps remaining.

Gordon ended a 32-race winless streak dating to last year's season finale at Homestead.

"Matt drove a really first-class-caliber race (Sunday), and I didn't know if we were going to get him, but it sure was awesome when we finally did and just kind of hoped there were no cautions," Gordon said.

The victory clinched the manufacturers' title for Chevrolet, which won for the 11th straight season and 37th time overall.

Kenseth's second-place finish closed the gap on Johnson, who was up four points as they came into one of Johnson's best tracks and one of Kenseth's worst. He had to rally from the middle of the pack to save his finish after a call not to pit midway through the race backfired.

"Whenever your team puts you in front for that last run and you're out there leading, you get beat, you're always a little bit disappointed," Kenseth said. "I just got beat by, honestly, experience and a better driver of this track. I was hesitant to change my line and do the things he was doing because what I was doing got me there. Just got too tight at the end. Wish I could do it over."

When it was time to leave, though, Kenseth found the silver lining: "I mean, gosh, for how Martinsville has been for me, how could you not be pleased? The only guy happier is Jeff."

Clint Bowyer finished third, his best finish of the Chase, and moved two spots in the standings to sixth.

Johnson finished fifth and braced for an epic fight for his sixth championship.

"It's been a great battle with (Kenseth), and (Gordon) has really shown that he wants to be part of this deal as well," Johnson said. "It's going to be a dogfight to the end — the way I would like to race for a championship, and I know that's what the fans want to see, so we'll be digging hard."

Greg Biffle angrily confronted Johnson on pit road after the race, accusing the five-time champion of running into him and tearing off his rear bumper.

"It takes a lot to get a rear bumper to come off," Biffle said. "I've got to look back and see what happened. He claims he was inside of me, but it sure felt like he hit me from behind and rubbed it across."

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