By Jenna Fryer
CHARLOTTE, N.C.: Jeff Gordon got into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship when NASCAR made an unprecedented move to expand the playoff field to 13 drivers after the controversial ending at Richmond.
Six weeks later, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson is back on top of the standings and in a tight points race with Matt Kenseth. Gordon is fifth, still mathematically in contention for his fifth title, just behind Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick.
And the focus finally seems to be back on the championship, instead of the shenanigans that occurred just before the 10-race Chase began.
“You’re going to go through rough patches and take some hits whether you’re a competitor or whether you’re a sport. That was certainly one of them,” Gordon said during testing at Texas Motor Speedway this week. “But ever since then, the focus has been on the competition and what’s happening on the track, and I feel like every week that builds, we’ve got a tight points battle with the first two guys and that’s certainly going to every week create a lot of interest.”
Johnson takes a four-point lead over Kenseth into Sunday’s race at Martinsville. It’s the first time Kenseth hasn’t been the points leader since the Chase began, and he opened it with wins in the first two rounds. But the Joe Gibbs Racing driver is coming off a 20th-place finish at Talladega that allowed Johnson to take his first lead of the Chase.
Gordon was added to the Chase when NASCAR Chairman Brian France determined the four-time champion did not have a fair chance to race his way into the 12-driver field because of the actions of at least three organizations over the closing laps at Richmond.
NASCAR determined that Michael Waltrip Racing manipulated the outcome of the race in a bid to get Martin Truex Jr. into the Chase. The sanctioning body also placed Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports on probation for the rest of the season when one-sided radio chatter showed Front Row discussing giving Penske track position in exchange for an unidentified favor.
“It definitely was a funk,” Johnson said. “I think that it’s kind of a distant thought now for most, although I saw Martin Truex [at testing in Texas on Tuesday], and it certainly isn’t a distant thought for him. ... I feel bad for the guy.”
The fallout has cost Truex his job at MWR. The team will run that car only a partial schedule next season because sponsor NAPA Auto Parts said it is leaving at the end of the season, a decision that forced MWR to layoff roughly 15 percent of its workforce.
Johnson said he hopes NASCAR has learned a lot about what happened and can prevent it from happening again.
“I feel like the racing and the tight points battle we’ve had has really come through all of that, and there’s a really good outlook for our 2013 season when you reflect back on it when the year’s over,” he said.
Gordon said those few days after Richmond were among the toughest he’s ever been through in racing.
“My emotions are good right now,” he said. “Now that things have gone well, it’s been fun. Racing has been fun since Chicago.”
Dixon the great
When it’s all said and done — and at just 33 years old, who knows when that will be — Scott Dixon will go down as one of the greatest drivers in IndyCar history.
His numbers already rank him as one of the most complete drivers the series has ever seen.
Dixon won his third championship Saturday night by finishing fifth at Fontana to cap a remarkable comeback. He was seventh in the standings and winless at the midpoint of the season, but ended the year with four wins in the final nine races — good enough for a 27-point victory over Helio Castroneves in the final standings.
This championship came in a 19-race season in which IndyCar had 10 different winners. The schedule included 10 street courses, six ovals and three road courses — far different from his 2003 championship, which was a 16-race schedule of only ovals. Dixon had three wins in 2003 and finished second five times.
The IndyCar landscape began to shift in 2008 as the 18-race schedule consisted of 10 ovals, four road courses and three street races. Dixon won six times, including the Indianapolis 500.
Now, with his three titles, and 33 career victories that rank seventh on the all-time wins list, Dixon has clearly established himself as a modern-day great.
Where will he be when he’s finished?
“I don’t know. I think I’m kind of one of those people that once it’s said and done, I’m done with racing, I can look back and say, ‘Hey, we achieved this, I achieved this.’ That’s the time for that,” Dixon said. “For me right now, I love racing. I want to race. Whether it’s IndyCar stuff, sports car stuff that the team does, I love being at a track. I love waking up thinking about it, train for it, do all that kind of stuff.”
Not giving up
Carl Edwards is doing a balancing act the last four races of the NASCAR season.
“We are not putting this season behind us yet,”’ he said.
Even though his championship chance this year is all but gone — he’s 10th in the standings and 68 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson, Edwards isn’t ready to count the rest of this season as just testing and preparation for next year.
“We have two things to do for the rest of the year. Number one, just win as many races as we can, have as much fun as we can,” Edwards said. “But two, it’s a real close second, is to prepare for 2014. It starts over again very quickly and every bonus point you can get through wins next season will help you to compete for that championship.”
The Roush-Fenway Racing driver has twice been the season runner-up, including 2011 when he tied in points but finished second on the tiebreaker because Tony Stewart had more wins. Edwards won a series-high nine races in 2008, when he was also second.
“My mission is to win the championship. That what I want to do,” Edwards said. “I know what it’s like to win a bunch of races in a year. I know what it’s like to be close.”