Updated: August 6, 2012, 3:08 PM ET

Suddenly, Jeff Gordon back in Chase picture

Hinton By Ed Hinton
Jeff Gordon and FamilyAnthony Gruppuso/US PresswireJeff Gordon's victory at Pocono on Sunday was a family affair with wife Ingrid Vandebosch and children Leo Benjamin and Ella Sofia.

Once, Richard Petty, relegated to a remote end of a garage area in the twilight of his career, remarked wryly that "This is where they put you when they don't need you anymore."

Jeff Gordon's crew chief, Alan Gustafson, got just a smidgeon of that feeling on the Cup tour's first stop at Pocono this year, the weekend of June 10.

"I can remember here, our garage stall was on the very end," Gustafson told reporters at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, after Gordon had received not so much a gift as a makeup call from the gods of racing.

Gustafson recalled that they were "25th or 26th in points" though actually they were 21st, but the point was, they were mired far from Chase contention at that point.

"When you're in that position with Jeff Gordon as a driver, it's not a good feeling," Gustafson said. He didn't mean a sense that Gordon was over the hill, but that the team just couldn't catch a break.

And the clock is running down on Gordon's career. If he isn't in twilight, sundown is hurrying. He turned 41 this past Saturday -- not old for Petty's era, but old for Gordon's -- and has long indicated he won't press on into his 50s as Petty did.

NASCAR really did need Petty back then, and fans longed en masse for a comeback, whether they'd been fans of his or not in the glory years. But he just couldn't recover, with a team that had been left far behind by technology.

NASCAR needs Gordon now, as its senior statesman, its elder star, the man from whom nearly all of NASCAR fandom would love to see resurgence, whether they booed him or not during the Wonder Boy years. Legions sympathized through the 31-race losing streak he broke Sunday, and especially through his wretched luck this season.

Petty never got to see "the seas part" as Gordon said he did Sunday, when teammate Jimmie Johnson, leading on the final restart before rain shortened the race, got sideways with a flattening tire and took out second-place Matt Kenseth, while Gordon got an excellent restart and shot safely into the lead.

From there, it was just a matter of waiting for the certain rain so that Gordon could be declared the winner. It wasn't a gift. He'd earned it all season, running strong but just never quite getting to a win.

"I felt we could have won two or three races this year," Gordon told ESPN reporters afterward. "We had to have this one, and I think we might have to have another one."

To make the Chase, that is.

Maybe he won't need another win. Gordon is now the leader for the second wild-card berth, with teammate Kasey Kahne leading for the first wild card. If the Chase started today, Gordon would win a tiebreaker, two fifth-place finishes to one, with Ryan Newman, otherwise his equal with one win and 611 points.

But his chances of adding a second or even a third win look bright now that the drought has broken. The Cup tour now heads to Watkins Glen, N.Y., where Gordon has won four times. On Aug. 25 comes Bristol, Tenn., where he has won five times. And on Labor Day weekend comes Atlanta, site of Gordon's last win before Sunday, last Sept. 6.

And his Hendrick Motorsports team is peaking just right for the season. Dale Earnhardt Jr. still leads the regular-season standings even after falling out with a broken transmission Sunday, and Johnson is fourth in points but tied for the lead in Chase seeding with three wins, including the Brickyard 400 last week.

In January, before this season started, team owner Rick Hendrick said openly he would be disappointed if the team didn't put all four cars in the Chase. For months afterward, it looked like too tall an order. HMS didn't even win a race until May, when Johnson won at Darlington, S.C.

Now, Hendrick's expectations are at the brink of fulfillment, although Gordon cheerfully scolded reporters at Pocono, "you guys start getting ahead of yourselves."

Still, he acknowledged, "we're really fired up for next week's race, and the coming weeks, to legitimately have a come-from-behind season and get ourselves in there, live up to the pressure of our boss."

Unlike Richard Petty, Jeff Gordon now has a real chance to draw nostalgic roars from the grandstands, a chance to make a major comeback.

David Newton column | Live! rewind | Recap | Results | Highlights

Nationwide Series: Redemption and breakthrough

Hard to pick the better story out of Iowa Speedway on Saturday. Elliott Sadler's was blatant, resounding, a shake of his fist at the fates of NASCAR regulations. Darrell Wallace Jr.'s was subtle, promising, perhaps strategic for the future of the sport.

Sadler made a real statement: "They are NOT going to take this championship from ME!" he shouted with a joyful resolve on the radio to his crew as he took the checkered flag Saturday evening in the U.S. Cellular 250, healing a heart wound he suffered last week when he was penalized out of a likely win at Indianapolis.

Wallace made it clear that he's the real deal at age 18 -- not only the strongest candidate for a major breakthrough in the eight-year history of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program, but one of the most promising teenage drivers in recent memory, period.

Wallace started alongside pole-sitter Sadler, drove past the veteran soon after the green flag and kept the lead for the first 37 laps. Only after a duel with Austin Dillon did Wallace drop to second place, and he blamed himself for that.

"I think I got out too hot at the beginning and used the tires up," Wallace, who is African-American, told ESPN's Shannon Spake after the race. "Then we fell off on the pit road -- a mistake on my part."

He was running second when NASCAR threw a competition caution for a tire check after 50 laps, but his cautious avoidance of a pit-road speeding penalty dropped him back to seventh, where he wound up finishing. His conservatism in the pits cost him on every stop, but he worked his way back after falling as far back as 16th.

On the racetrack, Wallace, who grew up in the rich short-track racing culture of Mobile, Ala., kept digging himself out of the holes.

"I definitely learned a lot from just running in the pack," he said.

Up front, Sadler dominated the late stages, and the win padded his lead in the standings over teammate Dillon to 18 points. Last week, he'd howled that NASCAR officials "are taking this championship from me" when he was penalized at Indy for jumping a late restart.

Sadler admitted to Spake that his head was down last week until his father shoved his chin up as he headed for Iowa.

"He gave me the best advice I ever could get from my father," Sadler said in Victory Lane. "He said, 'Do NOT let them take this championship from you. Go to Iowa and kick their'" -- and here the ever-polite Sadler hesitated, measuring his words -- "'butts.'"

He did.

Recap | Results | Highlights

Camping World Truck Series: 'Opportunity of a lifetime'

Something old and something new came out of Saturday at Pocono. The new was Joey Coulter's first Truck series win, showing that team owner Richard Childress doesn't give superb equipment only to his grandsons, Austin and Ty Dillon.

The old was a blast from the past of the Brothers Bodine, once known as the Battling Bodines when older brothers Geoffrey and Brett got into payback modes. This time, younger brother Todd verbalized perhaps the family's masterpiece at the blame game.

Todd Bodine drove right across the nose of the car of Nelson Piquet Jr. -- this in the estimation of all three Speed Channel analysts, all drivers, Michael Waltrip, Phil Parsons and guest commentator Jeff Burton, and in the eyes of most reasonable observers. With 18 laps left, Bodine wrecked and Piquet continued, and Bodine threw his helmet at Piquet's car as it passed by the crash scene under caution.

Then, beautifully Bodinesque, Todd tried to portray Piquet as the villain.

"I'll take blame for that whole thing," Bodine started off subtly, to Speed reporters, "because I should have known better than to trust an idiot. … I should have known that Nelson wasn't smart enough to go with me -- side-draft me."

"He just moved into me -- I had nothing to do," the Brazilian Piquet told the Speed broadcast crew via radio under caution, after Bodine threw his helmet. "I think it's a little unfair the way he got pissed off, because he knows I don't do that to people."

No, he doesn't know -- or said he didn't, claiming Piquet was seeking revenge from a past race at Kansas City.

"He thinks he owes me one," Bodine said. "I know that's what went through his mind: 'Here's perfect payback; I'm gonna turn him around.'"

Piquet, a former Formula One driver perhaps rattled by the NASCAR fuss, let Coulter get past him on the final restart with seven laps to go, and Coulter shot from third to first and was never headed after that.

Moments after RCR teammate Ty Dillon congratulated Coulter with a splash of energy drink in the face, Coulter called it "the opportunity of a lifetime to come drive for these guys. ... It's just awesome to close the deal ... to finally put one together for these guys."

Recap | Results

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.


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