RICHMOND, Va. — With his season essentially on the line, Jeff Gordon used a vintage drive to rally his way into NASCAR's championship chase.
The 41-year-old Gordon battled an ill-handling car early Saturday night, then took off at the end to finish second to race winner Clint Bowyer at Richmond International Raceway. His finish wrested the final berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship away from Kyle Busch.
"How 'bout Gordon!" yelled winner Bowyer. "He was terrible all night!"
Not when it mattered.
The four-time NASCAR champion got major adjustments to his Chevrolet through the race, fell a lap down, then nearly drove the wheels off in his bid to pick up as many positions as possible. He trailed Busch by 12 points at the start of the race, and beat him by three to claim the final spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field.
"I felt like we won the race," Gordon said. "What that was over, they told me I was in the Chase, we made it — I was ecstatic. I was going nuts.
"To me, after you have that kind of effort, fall back, them come up there and finish second, almost win the race."
Busch finished 16th, fading after poor pit strategy and a slow final stop to miss the Chase for the second time in his career. Team owner Joe Gibbs met Busch on pit road and leaned into the car window to console the angry driver.
"We missed. That's it. Plain and simple," said Busch, adding Gibbs told him, "'Handle it the right way.' There's no right way to handle this situation."
It was opposite emotions on pit road, as Gordon's team celebrated. He qualified second, but was terrible early in a race that was marred by three rain showers. The start was delayed almost two hours, and a second shower caused a stoppage that lasted just under 52 minutes.
Gordon was livid when he exited his car on pit road during the red flag.
"I was pretty ticked off that we got that far behind," Gordon said. "When you have that kind of a start to a race, you don't have a lot of hope that you're going to get it turned around."
But his Hendrick Motorsports team got it figured out during the third and final rain shower.
NASCAR called a caution for rain, and Gordon was one of eight top drivers to head to pit road. Denny Hamlin, the leader, stayed out apparently in a strategy that relied on the race being stopped once and for all for rain.
Instead, NASCAR went back to green and Hamlin led a group of drivers down pit road in a desperate late pit stop. Busch was part of a group that had pitted shortly before the rain so he stayed out and was fourth on the restart. But everyone who had pitted at the start of the caution was on fresh tires — Gordon included — and they quickly drove through the field.
It put Busch back in traffic, and when he finally did go to pit road, a slow stop further hurt his chances.
He never had another chance as Gordon picked his way through the field to his second-place finish. It came a week after he failed to move Hamlin out of the way on the final restart at Atlanta, a decision that cost him the win and ate away at him all week.
"I went from last week being the most disappointed I've ever been to finish second this week, being the most excited I've ever been to finish second," Gordon said.
Hamlin, who went into his home track as winner of the last two races, led a race-high 202 laps but faded to 18th. He still goes into next week's Chase opener as the top seed based on his series-best four "regular season" victories.
Hamlin goes into Chicago up three points over five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, defending champion Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski, who are all tied for second.
The fifth slot in the Chase went to Greg Biffle, then Bowyer, who got three more bonus points Saturday night.
The seventh spot went to Dale Earnhardt Jr., then Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr., who along with Bowyer gave Michael Waltrip Racing two berths in the first Chase appearance for the organization.
The wild-card slots went to Kasey Kahne and Gordon, who ensured all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers made the 12-driver field.
It was a bizarre night as rain soaked the track about 90 minutes before the scheduled start. The delay prevented Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney from giving the command to start the engines — he was long gone when the race started almost two hours late.
It became clear immediatly that Gordon was struggling. He dropped through the field, and radioed his team "I'm just hanging on" to the car.
Back at the front, it was a two-driver race between Hamlin and Earnhardt, who combined to lead 269 of the 400 laps.
With Hamlin leading Earnhardt and Gordon, a lap down, trying to keep Busch in sight, the rain resumed and NASCAR called a caution. It gave the drivers a chance to pit, Hamlin beat Earnhardt off pit road to maintain the lead, but NASCAR's attempt to go back to green failed when the rain picked up in intensity.
The race was stopped 48 laps before the halfway point, the mark it becomes official, and the cars parked on pit road as the drivers waited out the rain.
Keselowski thought it was a waste of time.
"Let's race. I'm not afraid to drive in the rain," he smiled. "We're supposed to be good drivers, right? Let's just do it once."
They waited for the track to dry, went back at it, and the complexion quickly changed.
The final caution for rain jumbled the field, put Stewart out front with teammate Ryan Newman charging hard. Newman had to win to get into the Chase, and Stewart let him by. But Newman led just 13 laps before Bowyer took over the top spot and never looked back. "Unbelievable," Bowyer said.