RICHMOND, Va. - Jeff Gordon rolled into Richmond International Raceway last year with his season on the line, locked in a tight battle with Kyle Busch for one of the last spots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
His hopes were nearly dashed as soon as the race began.
Gordon's car was barely drivable and he struggled to keep pace, falling a lap down early. But the race was stalled by three different rain showers, his Hendrick Motorsports team made major adjustments to his Chevrolet and Gordon used a vintage drive to storm through the field and finish second - claiming his spot in the Chase.
So as he heads into tonight's race as one of 10 drivers jockeying for the five remaining Chase berths, Gordon knows nothing is out of reach.
"Well, after last year, this is going to be easy," said Gordon, who will start from the pole tonight. "We went through so much last year that I think it allows us to be more relaxed, be more prepared knowing that you got to race as hard as you can until the final lap.
"I think the way (last year) prepared us was knowing no matter what happens, you can't ever give up. You just have to put every bit of effort into every single moment, every lap. If the car's off, you've got to work on it. Sometimes take big swings at it. If your car's perfect, don't get complacent."
That's the lesson all eligible drivers will take into Saturday night.
"What Jeff did last year is impressive because he was laps down early in the race," Jamie McMurray said. "I remember passing Jeff, his car was terrible. Normally when your car is that bad at the start of the race you can't fix it unless something is broke and you replace that part. I was shocked to see that he was able to race his way back up. That was super impressive."
Breathing a little easy heading into the deciding race is Dale Earnhardt Jr., ranked seventh in the Sprint Cup standings. Although he's winless this season, he's got a 37-point cushion on 11th-place and needs only to finish 32nd or better Saturday night to clinch a spot in the top 10.
"We've had enough good runs over the last couple weeks to put ourselves in this situation, not to have to be nervous or worried," Earnhardt said. "We're not locked in by no means, but we're in a comfortable enough position to be able to pay attention to the race we're running."
Joey Logano is eighth in points, with a win to fall back on, and can clinch a top-10 spot with a finish of 11th or better. His victory makes him eligible for a wild card if he falls outside the top 10. Logano, who has not finished lower than eighth in the last six races, is seeking his first career Chase berth.
"The momentum that this team has got right now, it's hard not to have confidence," he said.
Greg Biffle is ninth in points, has a victory and clinches a top-10 spot with a finish of ninth or better.
Kurt Busch is one of the most compelling story lines as he seeks to become the first driver for a single-car organization to make the Chase. It would come two seasons after his career was derailed following his firing from Penske Racing.
Although he's winless on the season, he's ranked 10th in points, holds a six-point edge over 11th, and wraps up a Chase berth by finishing second with at least one lap led or finishing third with the most laps led. He would have to be overtaken by at least one (and possibly more) of the six drivers behind him.
He's leaving Furniture Row Racing at the end of the season to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing, but said he thinks his tiny team can win a championship before he goes.
"We can contend. I'm optimistic about it," he said. "We posted great numbers all season."
Gordon is 11th in points, six points behind Busch, winless on the season and he needs a victory to clinch at least a wild-card spot. He remains in contention for a top-10 spot, but would need to pass several drivers ahead of him in the standings.
"I feel very relaxed this week," he said. "I'm anxious to get the race started. I feel like our chances are good. I know that our team has been in this situation and knows how to fight and overcome this type of adversity."
Stafford Township, N.J., Martin Truex Jr., driving with a broken right wrist, is 13th in the standings but has a win this season. A victory today would get him into the Chase with at least the wild-card, and he could still move into the top-10.
"I race to win. I don't race for top-10s. That's what we all do. That's what got us there. That's why we're here," Truex said.
He will start 11th tonight. Younger brother Ryan, making the second Cup start of his career, will start 38th in the 43-car field.
Ryan Newman, 14th in points and 20 points outside the top-10, has a win and needs a victory to get at least a wild-card. That's how he was thinking headed into the race.
"If I win, I'm in," he said. "I can run second and still not make it. It's just a matter of going out there and seeing how everything falls."
Behind Newman is defending series champion Brad Keselowski, who is in danger of becoming the first champion since Tony Stewart in 2006 not eligible to defend his title. Keselowski is 15th in the standings, 28 points behind 10th and winless. He must win Saturday night just to be in contention for a wild-card spot.
"I know we're capable of it. I feel honestly like we can come here and win the race," Keselowski said. "That's really all I've thought about and all that is going to matter."
Notes: Gordon turned a track-record qualifying lap of 130.599 mph to win his 73rd career pole position, and his first this season. "I can breathe now," Gordon joked after seeing the time hold up.
His lap pushed Kurt Busch to the outside of the front row, meaning the tension win be palpable once the green flag drops tonight for the 400-lap race around the 0.75-mile, D-shaped oval.
The pole extended to 21 Gordon's NASCAR-record string of consecutive seasons with a pole position, breaking a tie with David Pearson, and gave him the No. 1 pit stall on the front stretch at RIR.