NASCAR made what it called an unprecedented decision Friday afternoon, adding Jeff Gordon as the 13th participant in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which begins on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.
NASCAR decided that a series of actions by Michael Waltrip Racing, Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports unfairly denied Gordon a spot in the Chase and so after nearly a full day of meetings at the track, Gordon is now officially back in business.
Stripping aside all the emotion and all the controversy of NASCAR's decision, one fundamental question remains: Now that he's in the Chase, is Gordon a legitimate contender to finally win his fifth Sprint Cup championship and his first since 2001?
While anything is possible, certainly, both short- and longer-term history -- and more importantly, cold, hard numbers -- suggest Gordon's odds of a miracle ending to the season are very slim indeed.
This year's edition of the Chase is the 10th year for NASCAR's playoff format. In the first nine editions of the Chase, the champion has come from the top four seeds seven times. The only exceptions were in 2004, when Kurt Busch came from the No. 7 seed to win the first Chase, and two years ago, when Tony Stewart made his incredible run, winning five of 10 Chase races.
Gordon will be one of seven drivers who begins this year's Chase in the very back of the pack with no bonus points, while leader Matt Kenseth has 15 and Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson have 12 each. It's not that the points gap is that big; it's that there are so many people to pass.
And speaking of Johnson, Gordon has not finished ahead of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate since Johnson's rookie season of 2002, when Gordon ended the year a mere seven points ahead of Johnson. In the next full 10 seasons, Johnson finished in front of Gordon each time.
This year has been more of the same so far.
At the end of the 26-race regular season, Johnson had four race victories, nine top-five and 15 top-10 finishes, along with 841 points. Gordon was winless, with five top fives, 12 top 10s and 750 points. Gordon was nearly two full races behind Johnson in points before the points were reset for the Chase. And Gordon had five DNFs to one for Johnson.
Can Gordon do it? Last week at Richmond, Gordon admitted it's been a challenging season.
"There's no doubt that our confidence has been tested, mine personally," Gordon said. "There's no doubt that this team is not riding high like some of the other teams that are out there. That's why we're 11th or wherever we're at in points right now. ... That doesn't change what our mission is."