Gordon wins; four drivers lose

DOVER, Del. -- Well, that was a bit of a letdown.

After all the buildup and manufactured drama leading into the first elimination race of NASCAR's revised Chase for the Sprint Cup, what actually transpired on the track simply didn't live up to the hype.

Just like the widely criticized race at Richmond International Raceway on Sept. 6 that determined the 16 drivers in the Chase, Sunday's AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway was a snoozer at the front of the field. There were basically just three leaders, an unusual lack of cautions, and not a whole lot of excitement in the closing laps surrounding who would make the cut and who would get left out as the 16-driver Chase field was reduced to 12.

Jeff Gordon dominated the last quarter of the 400-lap contest to earn his fourth victory of the season in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, winning at a canter by 4.353 seconds over Team Penske's Brad Keselowski with six-time Cup Series champion (and master of Dover) Jimmie Johnson third.

Meanwhile, that all-important battle for 12th place in the standings to advance to the Chase's Contender Round fizzled out in the closing laps. Denny Hamlin stayed alive with a 12th-place finish, while a lackluster run to 23rd doomed AJ Allmendinger.

Kasey Kahne finished the race in 20th place, but he clinched the 12th and final spot in the continuation of the Chase after Kurt Busch faded to an 18th-place finish with an ill-handling car over the final 50 laps.

Greg Biffle and Aric Almirola were the other two drivers who did not make the cut for the Contender Round.

Gordon's victory and Kahne's bubble drama made it a challenging day for Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick.

"Kasey made it a pretty long day -- he escaped a bullet," Hendrick said. "We kept watching the monitor hoping there wouldn't be a caution so Jeff could win and Kasey could get in. Kasey's car was so good early and he was running sixth or seventh, but when he had to pit under green when he felt like he had a loose wheel and lost a couple laps, I thought we were done.

"I really had written it off about two-thirds of the way through the race and I really didn't believe we'd get a break to get back in it," Hendrick added. "It was a roller-coaster of emotions, but Jeff got a win and made a statement and we get to take all four drivers to Kansas."

Almost lost in the focus on the Chase cutoff was the fact that Gordon ran strongly all day, hunting down and passing Keselowski on Lap 306 before cruising to his 92nd career Cup Series race win.

Gordon has finished lower than 20th four times this year. Each time, he won the next time out.

"It was a really solid race for us all day long," he said. "We had one hiccup on pit road and we over-adjusted one time and got a bit loose, but our strength was definitely the longer runs. My car really came to life then, especially in traffic. But I was glad at the end we didn't have a restart because Brad would have been tough.

"I saw when Kevin [Harvick] had his problem, and I knew he was going to be tough," Gordon continued. "He was really strong, definitely the car to beat today. I felt we had a shot at the 2 car [Keselowski]. We could stay with him and he would fade after about 30 laps.

"After so many years in the sport to have the year we are having is just amazing."

Harvick found himself shaking his head in disbelief after he suffered a repeat of the same freak inner-valve-stem failure that ruined his race at Dover in June. Harvick led 223 laps but once again had to explain how he and the No. 4 SHR team managed to lose a race that they dominated.

It was the fourth race in the past five in which Harvick led the most laps but failed to find his way to Victory Lane. His last win came April 12 at Darlington.

"Just handing out early Christmas presents to people for winning races that we should be winning," Harvick said. "But all in all, the Budweiser guys did a great job. It's just crazy luck. It's just unbelievable that it can happen. The shock broke first and we could beat them on three shocks, but we couldn't beat them on three tires."

Johnson, who owns a record nine wins at Dover's Monster Mile, didn't have enough to topple his teammate or 2012 Cup Series champion Keselowski on Sunday. For the most part, he wasn't complaining.

"I'm excited to advance," Johnson said. "These first three races went pretty well. Today we finished where we ran. Good solid day, but I'd be happier with some victories.

"Jeff had some of the craziest things happen to him the last five or six years late in the Chase, so I'm definitely happy for him," he continued. "He's been on fire. He and Alan [Gustafson, No. 24 crew chief] have found a lot of speed in their race cars. They're performing at a really high level and it's awesome to see."

The four drivers who failed to advance all had valid excuses. Almirola couldn't overcome a DNF in the opening Chase round at Chicagoland Speedway. Biffle and the No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing team haven't performed at their usual level all year long, and Allmendinger and the small JTG Daugherty team were happy to just make the 16-man Chase in the first place.

Busch was probably the most disappointed and admitted that an 18th-place finish Sunday just didn't cut it.

"I felt like we were in good position to advance, but you just can't expect to advance by running 15th or 18th," Busch said. "You have to be more competitive. You've got to have better lap times every time you go and hit the track.

"I just chalk it up to me not getting the job done. It's all my fault that we didn't advance."

On the flip side, Hamlin felt he and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team dodged a bullet by making it into the Contender Round despite not having a stellar run at Dover.

"I knew we had a car that was capable of racing our way in, but I didn't think it was going to be that close," Hamlin said. "We just started fading there at the end. A little bit on the defensive on my part, but still we lost the handle.

"I'm just happy this all resets and all starts from scratch again and we've got another life."

Indeed, as part of the new Chase format, the 12 drivers advancing to the Contender Round have had their points reset to 3,000. Nothing that has happened so far this season really matters at this point -- just the next three-race round of eliminations that culminates with what is certain to be a wild event at Talladega Superspeedway Oct. 19.

The other two Contender Round races are at Kansas Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

"In some ways all the brackets are survival brackets, but that particular bracket is probably more so than the others," observed Keselowski. "'Surviving Talladega' is its own horror film title, but it's also a reality.

"That place is gonna be a crazy place to finish that bracket out, and certainly there will be a lot of guys on the bubble and it's probably all gonna change on the last lap and the last corner."

Kind of like what NASCAR was hoping for (but didn't get) at Richmond and Dover.