Stepping out of his car with a big smile and fist-bumping his crew guys, you'd think Jeff Gordon had won the opening race in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup.
It may have felt like a win, but Gordon wasn't in Victory Lane celebrating his latest triumph at Chicagoland Speedway. Instead, he was in the garage following the Geico 400 having battled back from a lap down to finish sixth -- a fitting end to what had been a turbulent week.
The race started with much promise for Gordon, who qualified sixth and was running in the top 10. Shortly after a five-hour delay for rain, however, the No. 24 car slowed as Gordon limped to the pits with what proved to be a flat left-rear tire.
The subsequent green-flag pit stop cost him a lap to field, and from there the comeback was on. A timely caution accompanied by sound pit strategy would put Gordon back on the lead lap. From there, he then proceeded to march himself back to the front.
"That was an incredible accomplishment," Gordon said. "It just shows how much fight this team has in them. We never give up. And, what an awesome Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet race car we had tonight. Whoa! Man, it was so much fun!"
The weekend began with Gordon outside of the 12 participants comprising the Chase due to a series of schemes by rival teams the week before that culminated in Gordon missing the playoffs by a single point. NASCAR CEO Brian France asserted his authority Friday and inserted Gordon into the Chase as the 13th driver in an unprecedented pronouncement.
As Gordon said two days before his inspired drive Sunday, the news he had been unexpectedly placed in the Chase "lit a fire" under him. Although his team was winless on the year, he felt that the No. 24 team would be a force in the Chase now that he had a renewed sense of purpose .
That certainly proved to be the case Sunday.
"To think how far down we were with 40 laps to go, I know we were like 18th on one of those last restarts," Gordon said. "So, to be able to come up through there and get sixth and have a shot at a top-five was a lot of fun.
"That's what needed to get this thing started off right. And I'm proud of this team. Can't wait to get to this next race. What is it? Loudon? We're ready!"