Jeff Gordon tried hard to ease the pain.
"(I'm) a little bit disappointed," Gordon said, holding his hands up at his sides like he was baffled, "But also a little bit excited because that was a good points day for us and we needed that."
Looking straight at ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch, Gordon pursed his lips after his lipstick-on-a-pig phrase of eternal optimism, realized Punch would have no more post-race questions and adjusted the black sunglasses shielding his eyes. Underneath the black hat he had slapped on after taking his race helmet off, Gordon looked intent on hiding his disappointment the runner-up finish he was credited with at Pocono Raceway.
During the one minute Punch held a microphone in front of Gordon, the four-time champion adjusted the glasses eight times. He never removed them. On a ninth adjustment, Gordon turned and gazed toward turn three and the setting sun. More questions were coming as he stood sweating and stewing next to his still-hot race car on pit road, both from the satellite radio reporter next in the post-race queue and later in the media center during the required question-and-answer session.
And that was only the start.
The number of races left before the season-defining Chase of the Sprint Cup - NASCAR's 12-driver playoff format to determine the season champion - had just clicked from six to five. A win would have helped Gordon immensely. The final two spots (11th and 12th) in the title fight are likely going to drivers this year who have a win. Gordon doesn't have one yet in 2013, but at the moment he doesn't need it. The runner-up finish did help there. Now ninth in points, Gordon is provisionally qualified for the Chase.
He is leading, however, in the group of drivers left wondering what could have been Sunday.
Gordon's first win of the year was in his grasp as he took the final restart with two laps to go in the Pocono season finale. The leader, Gordon restarted well and got a jump on the field. He followed the instinct that had won him his championships, his races and his glory and took the inside line into Turn 1. A threat from the outside was non-existent, he thought.
Then Kasey Kahne, nine years Gordon's younger, launched into the corner, wheeled to Gordon's outside door and the two raced side-by-side toward the treacherous, typically one-lane Turn 2. Kahne had the better line. A sensible Gordon recognized it. He backed off.
Kahne, Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, rocketed to the lead and the win with his brilliant move. Gordon, dejected, maintained second.
It's a finish that simply will not go down easy for Gordon as the series moves toward the Chase selection. Sure, the No. 24 is currently qualified. But his position is nothing short of tedious. A win Sunday would not have erased all of the concern for Gordon's title fight changes, but it would have allowed for more breathing room.
But better yet, Gordon would have avoided the doubt and frustration that inevitably comes when the best made plans go awry. Racers replay finishes like that in their minds over and over. At 42, that creeping internal doubt about top-notch ability starting to wane isn't far off, either.
Gordon hasn't won a race at Watkins Glen since the last time he won a Cup championship - 2001. He may never have needed that streak to end so badly.
HOT: I know I already mentioned it, but Kasey Kahne's move to win the race around Jeff Gordon was so, so strong. Yes, his car was good. Yes, he got a shove from Kurt Busch. Still - Kahne made a statement Sunday, even at the expense of his teammate. Strong, strong stuff.
NOT: I'm still confused about Denny Hamlin's weekend at Pocono, and wonder if changes are coming for that No. 11 team. He was positively destitute about his chances during the pre-race in-car interview, wrecked where Hamlin doesn't normally wreck and then lamented afterward that communication within the team isn't good at the moment. And did anyone else find it strange that Hamlin didn't return from a pretty minor incident on lap 14 of a 160-lap Pocono race?
NEUTRAL: Speaking of Hamlin, the tiff between he and Kyle Petty seemed a little too harmless to garner the attention it did. It's nice, though, that both aren't afraid to speak their minds.
HOT: ESPN's broadcast seemed mostly seamless on Sunday, and that feels like a positive change. They were a tad late returning for two restarts, but that's all forgiven when the broadcast doesn't feel incredibly disjointed by commercial breaks. Note: I didn't see the Brickyard 400 broadcast.
NOT: The biggest crime Danica Patrick committed Sunday was simply that of being a rookie in NASCAR's top division. Still, it's not good form to cause multi-car wrecks in two of three races. Travis Kvapil probably won't let her finish a race sometime soon, and I wouldn't blame him. But that's the problem when you stick a driver in the cup series who should still be learning in the Nationwide Series.
NEUTRAL: Speaking of the Nationwide Series, can we seriously consider forcing any driver who is competing for Sprint Cup points to start in the back? I'd bet Brad Keselowski would have still won Saturday night at Iowa Speedway. Side note: Nine of the 40 starters were start-and-park cars.
HOT: Hendrick Motorsports has been ridiculously good for two consecutive races. At Pocono, three of the cars finished in the top-5 and a fourth (Jimmie Johnson) would have without a flat tire. And at Indianapolis, all four finished in the top-7.
HOT: Pocono had a great crowd for Sunday's race, and it seems that fans are adapting well to the now two-year-old 400-mile race concept. Sunday's race was entertaining through and through, largely because early race dominator Jimmie Johnson suffered his tire problem. Without that, I'm unsure the race would have featured the same number of twists and turns.
The Stenica Showdown Cup!
We're keeping track each week of how NASCAR's most important (only?) competitive couple performs against one another. The highest-finishing Sprint Cup result between Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. each week earns a point. Each driver can earn a bonus for doing just about anything else, racing related or not.
Juan Pablo Montoya wrecked Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Danica Patrick wrecked Travis Kvapil.
No, this isn't a repeat.
Bad weekend for the First Couple of NASCAR. Worse for Danica, really, because of the mess she caused for the second time in three weeks. Stenhouse is just glad to get out of Pocono after two crashes.
1st - Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 20 points (34th at Pocono) 2nd - Danica Patrick., 12 points (35th at Pocono)
- Motor Racing
- Sports & Recreation
- Jeff Gordon
- Kasey Kahne