On a night when Hendrick Motorsports celebrated its 200th victory, the man who scored 85 of those wins was left assessing a season which has quickly spiraled out of control.
Whether you want to call it bad luck or simple misfortune, Jeff Gordon has had more than his fair share of it in 2012, and the bad news for him is he suffered more of it during the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
Running solidly in the top 10 on lap 194, slight contact with Denny Hamlin resulted in a cut left-rear tire for Gordon. As he came down pit road, the yellow flag waved for the debris he had left behind on the track – but in a development typical of how his season has gone, NASCAR threw the caution just as Gordon hit pit road (thus he ended up a lap down).
With a fast car underneath him and plenty of time left in the 500-mile race, it appeared all was not lost for Gordon. There was certainly more than enough time for him to get his lap back and to race his way back into the top 10 – or at the very least, still leave Darlington with a respectable finish.
But that's not how Gordon's year has gone and just as quickly – five laps to be exact – another tire went down and it was obvious there were deeper issues with the No. 24 car. Gordon limped to the pits, then the garage to diagnose and address the problem.
Finally, 28 laps down and without his team being able to find a trace of what forced him to the garage, Gordon returned to the track and all he could say to his crew over the radio was "crazy."
This not only sums up his night, but his season as a whole.
"It's the same old story," Gordon told the Associated Press. "We're running good. We have fast race cars. We're doing everything we can as a team and just having things like that happen to us."
It has been a season in which Gordon has been hampered by mechanical failures, accidents not of his own doing and really, anything that can go wrong going wrong. All together, in 11 races he has finished 20th or worse seven times and has just twice finished a race inside the top 10.
Gordon's luck is so bad even his team owner, Rick Hendrick, joked after the race that he wouldn't share a plane ride home with his driver for fear of something bad happening.
In any case, with his 35th-place finish Saturday night, Gordon fell to 24th in the standings and sits an astonishing 96 points back of 10th-place Carl Edwards heading into next week's non-points All-Star Race.
And with just 15 races to go in the regular season, there's only one way Gordon is going to qualify for the Chase for the eighth time in nine years and it's apparent to everyone associated with the 24 team.
"He's got to win," Hendrick said in the Darlington media center in the midst of celebrating his 200th victory as an owner. "I mean, he and Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) know that. As good as he runs, as good as that car has been this year at different places, we can do it. I mean, it's an uphill battle. But I am confident Jeff will put everything he's got in it and we'll win some races with him."