The twist of fate that inserted Jeff Gordon's name back into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoff race was much like a parting of the seas. But even with one win in hand after a bizarre finish at Pocono Raceway, it's far from smooth sailing from here for the four-time champion.
Gordon shot from fifth to first when his rivals collided in front of him in what turned out to be the final restart before a rainstorm prematurely halted last Sunday's Pennsylvania 400. The result handed Gordon his first victory of the year and a provisional grasp on a wild-card berth with five races left before NASCAR's postseason.
The next of those races may be a wild-card unto itself. Gordon and the rest of the Sprint Cup field will shift to road racing at Watkins Glen International for Sunday's Finger Lakes 335 (1 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The 2.45-mile layout was once a playground for Gordon, who romped to four wins in five years from 1997-2001. There would be no better time for Gordon to rekindle his Watkins Glen magic than now as another win would do wonders for his Chase hopes.
"I mean, that would be huge," said Gordon, who locked up his 86th career win last weekend. "To follow up what just happened in Pocono, to know what's happening with the wild card, the battle for the Chase, I think that we know while we've made some huge gains over the last several weeks, that we're certainly in no position to take a breath or be comfortable with one win being, what, 13th in points.
"Not only do we understand -- and that's why there is added pressure -- how important it is to continue to keep up a high level of performance. I don't know if we need the second win as badly as we needed the first one, but it's not far off."
The performance level of late has helped to offset dreadful early season luck for the No. 24 team. Gordon was mired in 24th in points heading into Charlotte's Coca-Cola 600 in May, but six top-10 finishes in the last seven races -- including last Sunday's win -- have helped him jump 11 spots in the Sprint Cup standings.
Although the level of competition on road courses among the stock-car crowd has tightened immensely in recent years, two road pros in particular figure to be among Gordon's toughest challengers -- Tony Stewart, who has five wins in the last 10 races at the Glen, and Marcos Ambrose, the race's defending champ.
Stewart is a virtual lock to qualify for the Chase either via a top-10 ranking in points (he's currently sixth) or one of the two wild-card berths for top winners in positions 11-20 (his three wins are tied with Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski for most in the series). Ambrose, however, is on exceedingly shaky Chase ground, winless and 18th in points, as he heads to the site of his only Cup win. His position is not unlike Gordon's scenario from a week ago -- in desperate need of a victory to merit Chase consideration.
"I have a lot of good memories from our win there last year, and I'm hopeful we can go out and win No. 2 this weekend," Ambrose said. ". . . My team has worked extremely hard the last few weeks and it would be a good shot of momentum for the second half of the season if we could pull off a win this weekend."