DOVER, Del. (AP) — Jeff Gordon doused Team Penske’s hot streak with a champagne bath in Victory Lane.
Sticky and sweet, Gordon had secured an emphatic automatic spot in the next round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
But Gordon’s entry in the field of 12 was all but guaranteed even before he dominated the closing laps Sunday at Dover International Speedway. What wasn’t so sure was that Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne was coming along for the ride.
Kahne survived a bumpy 400 miles, falling four laps back before rallying for a 20th-place finish to nab the 12th and final spot in the field.
“Kasey made it a pretty long day,” owner Rick Hendrick said. “We were watching the monitor at the end of the race hoping that we didn’t have a caution and Jeff could win it and Kasey could get in. I didn’t know exactly how close it was going to be until I watched that monitor.”
NASCAR tried to inject its 10-race Chase format with a revamped formula for crowning a champion this season. Under NASCAR’s elimination format, four drivers will be knocked out after every third race. Dover marked the third race.
That meant plenty of nerves all around the track — and tons of scoreboard watching.
Kurt Busch, AJ Allmendinger, Greg Biffle and Aric Almirola were eliminated from championship contention. Four more drivers will drop out following the next three-race segment that starts next week at Kansas Speedway.
Gordon joined Chase winners Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano as the three drivers who were guaranteed a berth in the next Chase round with victories.
“I think it makes a statement of what type of team we are,” Gordon said after his fourth win of the season and 92nd overall. “I think that it makes a statement that we’re a team to beat for this championship.”
Kevin Harvick also advanced, along with the Hendrick duo of Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin was the lone driver of the bottom four entering Dover to race his way into the top 12. The points will reset for the Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega bracket.
“The tracks just keep getting better for us as the Chase goes on,” Hamlin said. “This is going to be a great comeback story.”
Gordon won for the fifth time at Dover and first since 2001, when he won the last of his four Cup championships.
“I’m excited about our chances, not just these next three, but all the way to Homestead,” Gordon said.
With crew chief Kenny Francis steadying the course after rough pit stops on the No. 5, Kahne survived a scramble that saw him nudge out Allmendinger for the final spot. Allmendinger fell two points shy of the cutoff. Busch was six off, Biffle seven and Almirola 18.
“I never really got nervous at all and I just raced real hard the whole time,” Kahne said. “Kenny started telling me we were tied for 12th and this was with 30 to go. Then he would tell me we were one point in and then maybe two points in, and then he wasn’t positive. Then I started getting a little bit worried, so it was intense inside the car.”
Team Penske was rolling, winning four of the last five races dating to Bristol, including the first two Chase races. Keselowski was second at Dover to continue his strong Chase effort through three races.
Johnson, Logano and Kenseth completed the top five at Dover. Chase drivers took 10 of 13 spots. Kyle Larson was sixth for the best finish among non-Chase drivers. Tony Stewart was 14th in his first race since a grand jury decided he would not be charged in Kevin Ward Jr.’s death.
Harvick appeared to have the car to beat and led a whopping 223 laps from his seventh pole of the season until he suffered tire woes and finished 13th.
“We can beat every car on the race track. We just need some good luck,” Harvick said. “If we get some luck, we’ll win races and have a shot at the championship.”
Kurt Busch, the 2004 Cup champion, failed to advance in his milestone 500th career start.
“If you’re off, it’s hard to put the car up on your back and run it,” Busch said.
Gordon had the top car down the stretch and led the last 71 laps to lead a banner day for Hendrick. At 43, Gordon entered the season answering questions about retirement. After wins at Kansas, Indianapolis, Michigan and Dover for his first four-win season since he had six in 2007, Gordon is answering questions about championships and hitting the 100-victory mark.
“I don’t think we’re going to get to 100 this year,” Gordon said, “but I hope we get past 93. That would be pretty awesome to get a couple more.”
Just enough to guarantee him a spot in the winner-takes-all championship race.
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