Now Gordon is trying his hardest to parlay that exemption from NASCAR chairman Brian France into a fifth title.
Gordon pulled into the championship picture Sunday with a win at Martinsville Speedway, his first of the season, to move from fifth to third in the Sprint Cup standings with three races remaining. Not too bad for the guy who started the Chase as the 13th driver in the field 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.”
The win was Gordon’s eighth career victory at Martinsville, but first since he swept the two races at the track in 2005. He’s tied with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for Martinsville victories, but both trail Richard Petty (15) and Darrell Waltrip (11) on the career list.
Most important, though, is that he’s just 27 points behind the leaders in the race for the Sprint Cup.
Matt Kenseth and Johnson left Martinsville tied atop the standings headed into Texas Motor Speedway. Gordon is third in the standings, with Kevin Harvick 28 points out and Kyle Busch 36 points behind.
“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 out front on the final restart with 77 laps remaining and Gordon lurking in third. Gordon stalked him for more than 50 laps, thinking to himself, “What would Jimmie Johnson do, or better yet, what would Richard Petty do?” before finally making the pass for the lead with 21 laps remaining.
Gordon didn’t look back in snapping a 32-race losing 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’ championship for Chevrolet, which won for the 11th consecutive season and 37th time overall. Chevrolet did it this year in the debut season of its SS race car.
Kenseth tied his career-best with a second-place finish, closing 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 tracks. He had to drive from the middle of the pack to save his finish after a call not to pit midway through the race backfired, but Kenseth was still a bit disappointed not to leave with the victory.
“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 had found the silver lining.
“I mean, gosh, for how Martinsville has been for me, how could you not be pleased?” he said. “The only guy happier is Jeff. I feel like when my team is at its best and we do everything right, I feel like we can race anybody at these next three tracks. Anything can happen, but man, we’re in it.”
Clint Bowyer finished third, his best finish of the Chase, and moved two spots in the standings to sixth.
Defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, who is not part of the Chase, was fourth.
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.”
Harvick was sixth, followed by pole-sitter Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle and Jamie McMurray.
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.”
Biffle grabbed Johnson’s shoulder to get his attention, exchanged words with him, and as he turned to walk away, Johnson reached to grab his arm to finish the discussion. Biffle ended the conversation.