Just when it looked as if it was definitely a two-man race to the 2013 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup, a feisty Jeff Gordon injected himself back into the conversation.
Perhaps he's still on the outer edges of it, but Gordon's win in the Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville Speedway at least keeps him well within earshot of Chase co-leaders Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson.
Until Gordon passed Kenseth with 21 laps remaining on Sunday and then held off Kenseth for his first win of the season, it appeared as if the two drivers atop the Chase were pulling away from the rest of the NASCAR Sprint Cup field for good.
Gordon remains a substantial 27 points behind Kenseth and Johnson heading into the AAA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, one of only three races left in a season that began way back in February.
But this isn't strictly about the math.
Not any longer. Not when Gordon finally displayed that rare combination of savvy and muscle which returned him to Victory Lane for the first time since the final race of last season at Homestead—nearly one full calendar year ago.
"This meant so much. I feel like we've worked so hard—and many weekends, we've left the racetrack looking at one another going, 'What do we have to do?'" Gordon said of his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team.
"We've had race cars, we've had pit stops, we've had strategy. I feel like I've had days where I've done my part. But we couldn't get it all lined up."
He, crew chief Alan Gustafson and their pit crew finally did at Martinsville, the only short track in the 10-race Chase where Gordon now has won eight times in his career.
"It obviously was a great day for us," Gustafson said. "Coming here, we knew we needed to get a lot of points out of here to keep ourselves in contention for this championship."
It is hard to believe that for a few days after the final regular-season race at Richmond International Raceway in September, this team wasn't even in the Chase.
It was only after NASCAR repeatedly adjusted the Chase field in the wake of an alleged attempt by Michael Waltrip Racing to unfairly alter the outcome of that race that Gordon eventually was added as an unprecedented 13th driver to a Chase field that never before had included more than 12 combatants.
"For me, I think we've proven that we belonged in the Chase all along," Gustafson said. "I think we've proved so far that we're a third-place team. Ultimately, at the end of the year, can we be better than that? We're going to do our best.
"That's the way I look at it. I think the proof is in the pudding. Your finishes and your results ultimately determine how good you are or you aren't, and I think we've represented ourselves well. And I don't think we're done."
So now, here they are within striking distance with three races left.
Even Kenseth now considers Gordon a threat—as well as Kevin Harvick (28 points back in fourth) and even Kenseth's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch (36 points back in fifth).
"I think if you're within a race (or 43 points), anything can happen," Kenseth said.
Gordon is counting on it. And he insisted there is plenty of racing left.
"Let's be honest. We're all still (mathematically) alive, but right now there are two that are in it," Gordon said of the championship battle. "Our job is to go to Texas and make it three. Realistically, legitimately, we've got to put pressure on those guys."
And now, realistically, legitimately, Gordon and his team may actually be in a position to do it and make this Chase really interesting.
All quotes for this article were obtained first-hand by the writer.
Follow Joe Menzer on Twitter @OneMenz
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