JOLIET, Ill. -- As he prepares to head to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for Sunday's Sylvania 300, Jeff Gordon knows he'll need more than top-10 finishes to win the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
A sixth-place result is good, considering the disaster that the Chicagoland Speedway race could have been. But wins and top-five finishes are often the key to a championship run. Even so, when Gordon climbed from his car with a smile as wide as the Chicagoland track after Sunday night's Chase opener, he looked as happy as if he'd won the race.
Fired-up Gordon let out a "Woo!" and bumped fists with his crewmembers. Why not? Gordon and his No.24 team seem to be able to overcome anything right now — even missing the Chase.
With nine races left in the season, the four-time champion is seventh in the standings — the best he's been all season — after being awarded an unprecedented chairman's selection into the Chase two days before the 10-race title-run opener.
Gordon faced more adversity during Sunday's race, forced to pit under green with a flat tire that left him mired a lap behind the leaders. He rallied back to fight Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for a top-five finish in the closing laps; thus, the "Woo!"
"Man, what a great comeback," Gordon said, showing some of the boyish enthusiasm reminiscent of the driver who made a splash when he entered NASCAR 21 years ago. "What a great race car. I'm proud of this team for never giving up. That's why we're in this Chase; we don't give up. That's what we're going to give them for the next nine weeks."
Though it's been awhile since Gordon has shown the form that led him to four titles — his "Drive for Five" has been ongoing since the No. 24's latest championship in 2001 — the 42-year-old seems to be rejuvenated after a stunning turn of events put him among the Chase contenders.
Two days later, NASCAR reacted with the most severe penalty in its history, removing Truex from the Chase and putting Ryan Newman in. But officials said Gordon could not get a spot because of the ripple effect of trying to guess what might have happened had the race been completed without foul play.
By Friday, after more suspicious radio chatter emerged between Logano's team and another organization, NASCAR chairman Brian France made the shocking and unprecedented move to add Gordon to the Chase as the 13th driver in what had previously been a 12-man field. France called it the right thing to do, based on the competitive disadvantage other teams created for Gordon.
Gordon, who had come to terms with his misfortune and was starting to move on, was elated. But he knew being in it wouldn't mean much unless he and his team capitalized.
That's why a good Chase start — especially after the race seemed destined for disappointment — left Gordon increasingly optimistic. "We've overcome a lot this year," he said with a chuckle. "That just shows you what kind of fight this team has. We've been dealing with this for the last two years, having to overcome adversity and never giving up. It shows you what you're made of and what kind of race team we have."
This season, Gordon has no wins and five top-fives — on pace for his lowest total in the latter category since 2005. And with Chase favorites Johnson, Matt Kenseth (who won Sunday's race) and Kyle Busch (second) showing no signs of weakness, Gordon and his team will have to keep the good mojo flowing.
"You've got to understand, it's been a really up and down year for us," he said. "We haven't had a lot to smile about. When it counts the most, that's when you want to have your best performances. I thought it was probably our best performance of the year even though it wasn't our best finish. The car was unbelievably good."