DARLINGTON, S.C. –Jeff Gordon knows full well that the best way to remove the pressure of a stressful weekend at Richmond is by winning on Sunday at Darlington (7 p.m. ET on NBC).
Barring a victory at the Lady in Black, Gordon likely will have to avoid disaster in the Bojangles’ Southern 500 and the following Saturday in Richmond to secure a spot in the Chase. And it will help his chances immensely if the next two races don’t produce a new winner.
Gordon currently is 12th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings, with a 52-point advantage over Aric Almirola, the first driver below the current Chase cut line. But a victory comes with the immediate guarantee of a Chase spot.
“That would be huge,” said Gordon, who is making his final appearance at Darlington. “We definitely feel pressure, and it’s a little bit stressful right now, being on the bubble. I felt like we were in a pretty comfortable position about a month ago. We’ve just had some misfortunes. I feel like we’ve performed well enough to securely be in by points.
“I can’t say we have performed well enough to be real confident coming in here that we are going to be one of the cars to beat. But I will follow that up also with the amount of hard work that (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) and the team, everyone at Hendricks Motorsports has been putting in, the effort for this weekend especially, but going forward as well. I’m pretty happy with the car. I think we’ve got a shot at doing that.”
It’s not that Gordon isn’t used to pressure. In 2012, he edged Kyle Busch for the final Chase spot by three points. In 2013, NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France added on to the Chase field after late-race machinations at Richmond by Michael Waltrip Racing finagled the four-time champion out of a Chase berth he otherwise would have secured.
“No matter what, we realize it’s important for us to execute really well this weekend to put a great result out there on the track to get those points we need to go to Richmond and be a little more comfortable anyway,” Gordon said.
“Other than a win this weekend, Richmond is going to be stressful. But the good news is we’ve dealt with it before.”
Greg Biffle, whose only feasible path to the Chase requires a victory in one of the next two races, led Friday’s opening NASCAR Sprint Cup practice at Darlington with a lap at 176.201 mph. Biffle has won twice at the Lady in Black, his last victory coming in 2006. … Austin Dillon was the first driver to pick up a Darlington stripe early in the opening practice session. Though Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet suffered hard contact with the outside wall, his team opted to repair the car rather than go to a backup. … Kurt Busch, the only driver using the new high-tech digital dashboard in his car this weekend, was quick in both practices. He was second to Biffle in the opening session and second to Brad Keselowski in Happy Hour … Kyle Busch was eighth fastest in final practice before smacking the Turn 2 wall on his 33rd lap of the session. Busch’s team rolled out the backup No. 18 Toyota, which Busch will now drive in Sunday’s race. After his team prepped the backup car, Busch returned to the track, ran 21 laps and ended up 34th fastest in the session.