The last time Jeff Gordon won on Dover’s Monster Mile was 2001. It was also the last time Gordon won a Sprint Cup championship.
Gordon grabbed the lead from Brad Keselowski with 73 laps to go on Sunday and won the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway, the third leg in the three-race Challenger Round in the new Chase for the Sprint Cup’s 10-race format.
The win — Gordon’s fourth of the season and 92nd of his illustrious career — guaranteed his passage to the three-race Contender Round, which begins with next Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.
And Gordon, at 43, served notice that he is a serious contender to win his fifth Sprint Cup championship.
“This is huge,” said Gordon, who was in danger of missing the cut to 12 drivers after a 26th-place finish at New Hampshire last week. “We came in here with a little bit of extra pressure because we weren’t guaranteed to be in.
“But all we did was focus on executing as a team and trying to win this race and nothing else. It wasn’t about the points; it wasn’t about just squeezing by to get to the next round. It was about making a statement. I don’t know how you make a bigger statement than what this team just did right there.”
Keselowski, by virtue of his win two weeks ago at Chicago, and Team Penske teammate Joey Logano, were also assured of being among the 12 drivers who advanced to the next round, which also includes Charlotte and Talladega before the Chase field is whittled to eight.
The points for the remaining 12 Chase drivers, including Carl Edwards of Columbia, who was 11th on Sunday, will be re-set to 3,000, and the next three races will comprise another mini-season.
Four drivers — 2004 Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch, AJ Allmendinger, Greg Biffle and Aric Almirola — were eliminated from Chase contention.
“Three more races, a new start, and what we were able to do in these last three, other than getting us to this next round, really mean nothing,” said Keselowski, who has won a series-most five races this season. “We've got to keep our head on straight and push forward these next three like we have these last three.”
Kevin Harvick dominated the first half of the 400 mile race and led a race-high 223 laps before blowing a left-front tire and settling for a 13th-place finish.
“That was unfortunate for him,” Gordon said of Harvick. “He was the class of the field. When I saw him go out, I knew we could compete with the No. 2 (Keselowski). The No. 2 was really good on short runs, but we could run him down. Of course, he made us work for it there at the end because he was so good on short runs and he got to me.”
The dominance of Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske were evident in the race. Gordon’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate and six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson finished third, and Logano was fourth.
Hendrick will have four of the 12 Chase drivers in the Contender Round with Gordon, Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne, who claimed the 12th spot with a 20th-place finish, just ahead of Biffle.
“Well, Kasey escaped a bullet, and Jeff got a win,” said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports. “… When you have four cars and you want them to make that round … it was a roller coaster of emotions. But winning a race is special. At least we now get to go to zero and take all four to Kansas.”