CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Jeff Gordon got into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship when NASCAR made an unprecedented move to expand the playoff field to 13 drivers after the controversial ending at Richmond.
Six weeks later, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson is back on top of the standings and in a tight points race with Matt Kenseth. Gordon is fifth, still mathematically in contention for his fifth title, just behind Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick.
And the focus finally seems to be back on the championship, instead of the shenanigans that occurred just before the 10-race Chase began.
“You’re going to go through rough patches and take some hits whether you’re a competitor or whether you’re a sport. That was certainly one of them,” Gordon said during testing at Texas Motor Speedway this week. “But ever since then, the focus has been on the competition and what’s happening on the track, and I feel like every week that builds, we’ve got a tight points battle with the first two guys and that’s certainly going to every week create a lot of interest.”
Johnson takes a four-point lead over Kenseth into Sunday’s race at Martinsville. It’s the first time Kenseth hasn’t been the points leader since the Chase began, and he opened it with wins in the first two rounds. But the Joe Gibbs Racing driver is coming off a 20th-place finish at Talladega that allowed Johnson to take his first lead of the Chase.
Gordon was added to the Chase when NASCAR Chairman Brian France determined the four-time champion did not have a fair chance to race his way into the 12-driver field because of the actions of at least three organizations over the closing laps at Richmond.
NASCAR determined that Michael Waltrip Racing manipulated the outcome of the race in a bid to get Martin Truex Jr. into the Chase. The sanctioning body also placed Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports on probation for the rest of the season when one-sided radio chatter showed Front Row discussing giving Penske track position in exchange for an unidentified favor.
“It definitely was a funk,” Johnson said. “I think that it’s kind of a distant thought now for most, although I saw Martin Truex (at testing in Texas on Tuesday), and it certainly isn’t a distant thought for him. … I feel bad for the guy.”
The fallout has cost Truex his job at MWR. The team will run that car only a partial schedule next season because sponsor NAPA Auto Parts said it is leaving at the end of the season, a decision that forced MWR to layoff roughly 15 percent of its workforce.
Johnson said he hopes NASCAR has learned a lot about what happened and can prevent it from happening again.
“I feel like the racing and the tight points battle we’ve had has really come through all of that, and there’s a really good outlook for our 2013 season when you reflect back on it when the year’s over,” he said.
Gordon said those few days after Richmond were among the toughest he’s ever been through in racing.
“My emotions are good right now,” he said. “Now that things have gone well, it’s been fun. Racing has been fun since Chicago.”
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