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Jeff Gordon not ready to stop the surge

Late push into Chase gives 4-time champ confidence to contend for a 5th Cup title

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Saturday, Sep. 15, 2012

Jeff Gordon made the Chase.

Now, what?

Several times since the advent of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, drivers have earned their berth in the final race to qualify only to falter during the 10-race playoff.

Gordon, who edged Kyle Busch by three points following last weekend’s race at Richmond, Va., to claim the final wild-card spot, vows his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team will be in the title hunt to the end.

“I think the only way that you don’t hear from us in the Chase is if some of the same things that bit us earlier in the year bite us again,” Gordon said Friday at Chicagoland Speedway, site of Sunday’s Geico 400.

“If we finish where we’re running and where are performance level is at, then we’re going to be a major threat in this thing. We’ve done that the last three weeks.”

Gordon – who has finished third, second and second in the past three races – also has scored the most points of any driver during that stretch. The second-highest total is 123 by Denny Hamlin, who enters the Chase as the No. 1 seed.

Gordon was 20th-fastest during Friday’s first practice and 10th-fastest in the final practice. Busch led the way in final practice. Qualifying will be at 1:40 p.m. Saturday.

Gordon, whose lone victory this season came Aug. 5 at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, has maintained his cars have been fast enough to compete for the title but various mishaps plagued the team during the first 26 races put his Chase participation in doubt.

“Especially after (Richmond), we definitely feel like this season has just been rejuvenated for us and we’re on a clean slate,” Gordon said.

“We’ve got an excellent opportunity to do something pretty spectacular that we might not even have expected with this season and the way it could possibly turn out.”

Gordon entered Richmond trailing then-points leader Greg Biffle by 145. Now, with the points reset for the 12 title contenders, Gordon’s deficit to Hamlin stands at only 12. That difference equates to almost a three-race gap that was erased in one night.

“At Richmond, the determination that (crew chief) Alan Gustafson and this team showed was incredible,” Gordon said. “Anything is possible from this group – including a championship.”

Gordon is a four-time series champion, but his most recent came in 2001. He has never won a title in the Chase format – his best performance has been second in 2007.

The past three weeks, during which Gordon and his team threw everything they had into making the Chase, might have taught Gordon how to win it.

“I think what these last three weeks, and really this season, has proven to us is that you have to aggressively pursue wins and obviously accumulate the most points,” he said.

“That’s what wins the championship. We have our work cut out for us. But we’re going to go out there with nothing to lose and everything to gain – the same way we’ve approached these last races.

“We just go put the best thing underneath us we can on and then fight for the last lap and see where we end up.”

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