MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Denny Hamlin’s car roared by, a thick plume of white smoke trailing in celebration of his fifth career NASCAR Sprint Cup win at Martinsville Speedway, while Jeff Gordon unbuckled his seat belts and prepared to climb out of his car on pit road.
That could have been Gordon burning rubber and rewarding fans with the victory had he not sped on pit road. Instead, Gordon’s chances of winning ended when he was penalized on Lap 462 after entering pit road in the lead.
“That’s all on me,’’ Gordon radioed his team after rallying from 22nd to finish ninth. “I’m sorry guys we lost that one.’’
As his Cup career comes to a close, there are fewer chances for redemption. He’ll have the fall race here and maybe another chance or two after that – Gordon has said if he came back to drive in the series after this season he’d consider running at Martinsville. That didn’t help after exiting his car.
“That was really devastating,’’ Gordon said. “I feel pain because we had a golden opportunity to be right there, and I ruined it for us.’’
What made it worse was that his car was the best it had been all day.
“I couldn’t believe we were in the top 10,’’ he said. “I thought we were just trying to get to 25th.’’
Gordon’s faux pas marked the second consecutive race at Martinsville a speeding penalty cost him a chance for the win. Gordon lamented the speeding penalty he received at this track during last year’s Chase. Had he won, he would have earned a spot in the Chase finale at Homestead and his incident with Brad Keselowski late in the Texas race the following week would not have kept him from contending for a fifth series crown.
Gordon said Sunday’s situation was different from what happened last fall.
“That was a situation where we were between a second- and third-gear option down pit road,’’ Gordon said. “To eliminate that from happening, I made sure I ran second gear today all day long. I don’t know. I have no idea. It had to be really, really close. I thought I did everything perfect.’’
NASCAR did not release Gordon’s speed. Pit road speed was 30 mph. NASCAR gives teams an allowance of 4.99 mph, thus Gordon had to have gone faster than 34.99 to be penalized.
Based on how Gordon ran early in Sunday’s race, ninth wouldn’t have seemed like a bad finish even for someone who has eight Martinsville victories.
“I just got so loose so quick,’’ Gordon said of his struggles early in the race. “I was afraid of that. I mentioned it before the race. When this place isn’t laying rubber, we seem to really struggle with wearing out the left rear tire really bad. It really bit us today.’’
Gordon credited crew chief Alan Gustafson and his team for making the right adjustments that when the track began to take rubber, Gordon’s car was strong.
“As we made adjustments and we started to be really competitive that’s when I started getting excited that we are as good as we were last year, as good as I feel like we can be. It’s been up-and-down this year, so we need these kind of performances.’’