The 42-year-old driver saved his best for the final 100 laps in the Goody’s Headache Fast Relief Shot 500 to win for the first time this season. It was a tearful return to Victory Lane, one that proved he still has a lot of racing left.
“You never know when that next win is going to come. I understand that better today,” Gordon said. “What’s even tougher is when you’re not getting the wins and it keeps accumulating over time. It can wear on you.
“You don’t get to enjoy wins very long in the season. This is a special one for many reasons. What’s going to stick with me is it’s been a tough year. There’s no time better to win races than right now.”
Gordon got into the Chase for the Sprint Cup on a reprieve after NASCAR determined other teams conspired to manipulate the outcome at Richmond International Raceway. Gordon has proven to be anything but a write-in contender, moving to third in the standings, trailing Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, who are tied at the top.
Gordon is 27 points behind with three races remaining.
“Things are coming our way,” he said. “Momentum is coming our way.”
Kenseth also made a stand with a second-place finish. He led a race-best 202 laps, but faded in the final 21 laps after Gordon took the lead.
“Whenever your team puts out in front for that last run and you’re out there leading, you get beat, you’re always a little disappointed,” Kenseth said. “I just got beat, honestly, by experience and a better driver of this track. I was hesitant to change my life and do the things he was doing because I was doing the things that got me there.”
Johnson was trying to win his third consecutive race at the track. He led 123 laps, but couldn’t make up any ground in the second half of the race.
“It’s been a great battle with the 20 (Kenseth) car,” Johnson said. “The 24 (Gordon) has proven he wants to be a part of this deal as well.”
Kenseth led 106 consecutive laps and was able to maintain a five-car-length lead over Gordon for most of it. But when Kenseth got trapped behind lapped traffic, it allowed Gordon to close the gap.
“Experience got me. I hurt the rear tires,” Kenseth said. “When the 5 [Kasey Kahne, Gordon’s teammate] blocked me I lost a lot of momentum and Jeff got to me. Once I pushed him out of the way, we were a little slower.
”Sunday’s win was the eighth for Gordon at Martinsville, but the first since 2005.
“The tires really went away on us there at the end,” Gordon said. “I knew the car was good on the short runs. Every time I saw him slip a wheel, I tried to conserve my tires and keep it real straight in the corners and off the corners. I finally saw where he was struggling on the exit and I dove in there a couple times but I couldn’t quite keep it. He did a good job protecting his line.
“It’s probably the most patient I’ve had to be here in a long time.”
The track two hours north of the team headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., always has been special to car owner Rick Hendrick. He is the winningest car owner in the track’s 65-year history with 21. It’s also where his brother and son were among 10 people who were killed nine years ago in a plane crash near the track.
“We’ve been through a lot. We’ve had fast cars but something would always happen. This makes it wall worth it,” Gordon said. “A huge win points, for the manufacturer’s championship, for everyone at the Hendrick family and all those that were lost several years ago.
“Man what a great race car.”