A Gordon title win is NASCAR's nightmare ending
Jeff Gordon's win at Martinsville vaulted him into third place in the Chase standings. While he's still well behind both Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, he's now a part of the conversation. One blown engine (something Toyota has suffered from on numerous occasions this year) or one bad break (Johnson) could give him an opportunity to finally complete the “Drive for Five” that Gordon began years ago. Yet the very thought of Gordon hoisting the Sprint Cup title in Homestead has to be sending shivers down the spines of every France family member. Gordon winning the championship after initially not qualifying for the Chase would be a catastrophe of Richmond-like proportions for NASCAR and officials are well aware.
When Brian France added Gordon into the Chase several days after the Richmond race, not many thought the addition was anything more than symbolic. He had five DNFs in 26 races including four days that ended with a wrecked race car. That didn't even include Gordon's run at Watkins Glen when he finished 25 laps down after wrecking earlier in the event. While “Four Time” was in contention at a handful of events, his team was a step behind the Sprint Cup's elite. Adding Gordon into the Chase was a way to calm his angry fanbase after the events at Richmond- not a recognition that he was a serious championship contender who was unfairly denied a chance to compete.
Just one sad chapter in Gordon's 2013 before the Chase began
But here we are. With only three races left in the Chase, Gordon sits in third place on 27 points out of the lead. He's finished in the top 15 in all seven playoff races to date with only two finishes worse than seventh. Since that wreck at Watkins Glen, Gordon has finished on the lead lap in every single race. Without last week's race at Talladega ending early he may well have scored a top ten there as well. He has won at all three upcoming tracks including last year's race at season-ending Homestead. As long as his luck holds, Gordon will be competitive in each race and a legitimate contender to win every time out.
Moreover, the points differential is not an insurmountable one. Consider the relative points of Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski from a year ago. After the 33rd race of the season in Martinsville Johnson had a two point lead on Keselowski. By the time the checkered flag dropped at Homestead, Keselowski won the championship with a 39 point lead- a turnaround of 41 points. While the point weightings were different, the 2010 Chase saw the points swing from Jimmie Johnson up by 14, then Denny Hamlin up by 35, and finally Johnson win by 39 points- all in the space of the season's last three races. Make no mistake, if Gordon wins another race and runs up front in the other two he has better than average chance to become the champion. He will have earned it.
Yet there is a difference between taking advantage of an opportunity and being a legitimate champion. And there will be many who will place an enormous asterisk after this title should he win it. His entry into the Chase didn't come as a result of performance on the track. It came because of a perceived unequal playing field. It came because NASCAR bent to public pressure. It also only came several days later, when it became clear that Michael Waltrip Racing wasn't the only team in the garage who could crunch the numbers and see they just might fall one point shot.
We will never know if Gordon would have been able to qualify on his own had various teams not acted in their own self interests at Richmond. Without a win, he would have been on the outside looking in had he tied with Joey Logano. He wasn't leading the race when Bowyer crashed, as Ryan Newman was. He didn't initially get in after various teams were penalized. Instead, NASCAR created a hole where there was none and made it a baker's dozen for the Sprint Cup championship. Now Gordon has gone back to the future and is in contention for a title. Makes for a great story, right?
While it's a great story for Gordon fans, it's a little less so for fans of Kenseth and Johnson. Imagine how they (and the respective sponsors/teams involved) would feel if their guy finishes in second to Gordon. They would claim loud and long that their driver was screwed, that Gordon didn't qualify for the Chase in the first place and that their driver was the “Real World's Champion” (TM Ric Flair). In the near-decade that NASCAR has used a playoff system to determine their champion, the sanctioning body has never added a team to the Chase, no matter what happened. In over 60 years of racing, they have never overturned results on the race track. It's hard to see fans of either second place finisher taking it well (even for a teammate in the case of Johnson).
The result would be yet another segment of the fanbase becoming convinced that NASCAR plays favorites. After all, if NASCAR doesn't add Gordon into the Chase by executive fiat, all the wins in the world wouldn't elevate him beyond 13th place. Why did Gordon deserve to be elevated off of the track when he didn't earn it on track? The argument would lay out something like this; if it was someone other than Gordon- say, Denny Hamlin or Brad Keselowski, two drivers who have been known to be critical of NASCAR- would they have received the same benefit? Or would they have heard the tired old line that, “The race decision is final” and found themselves preparing for next year?
Again, this is no slight on Gordon. He has to play the hand he is dealt and that hand was a late Chase berth. If anyone in the field deserves the benefit of the doubt, it would him. He's won four championships and 88 Sprint Cup races in his 20+ years as a Sprint Cup driver. He's raced hard but generally raced clean. At the end of the day, he's been good for business. If he wins a title, that trophy will sit proudly on his shelf right next to the other four. He won't be ashamed of it and neither should he; regardless of how he got there, Gordon still had to get the job done once the Chase began. His fans have waited through a series of close calls lasting more than a decade to see their man on top once more.
But that doesn't mean a Gordon championship would do NASCAR as a whole any favors in 2013.