I’ve said many times over my many years as a motorsports writer that the only thing you can predict about racing is that it is unpredictable.
Very seldom, if ever, is anything certain. It just doesn’t work that way.
Here’s what I think is a perfect example of that. It happened this past weekend.
The Pennsylvania 400 was indeed a bizarre race. If you saw it, well, you know what I’m talking about.
Perhaps the only thing we might have thought was certain was a fourth victory of the season for Jimmie Johnson – and, no doubt, a big step toward the sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship of his career.
After all, Johnson was the race’s dominant driver. And he was in the lead when the race restarted following a caution period.
We all knew it was going to be the last restart of the race – menacing, dark skies loomed and a widely predicted storm was ready to erupt.
All Johnson had to do was stay in front for perhaps a lap or two and the ensuing downpour would end the race and ensure his victory.
But what happened was hard to fathom. Going into the first turn it appeared Johnson pushed his Chevrolet too far and too hard into the low portion of the track. It broke loose and slid upward into Matt Kenseth’s Ford.
That triggered an incident that involved several cars and, of course, assured Johnson he wasn’t going to be the winner. Instead he finished 14th.
Five-time champion Johnson made what most would consider a rookie mistake. For sure his maneuver, or lack of one, was something no one could expect from a veteran driver – not to mention one who was a multiple titlist.
Who could have possibly predicted that?
And who could have predicted what happened afterward?
When the dodging and scrambling came to an end in a most unusual turn of events, Jeff Gordon, Johnson’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, inherited the lead.
Gordon came to Pocono winless for the season. He had only eight top-10 finishes and was 15th in points in a most uncharacteristically unproductive season.
Many speculated he would not make the Chase. He was finished, done for, toast, kaput ….
But there he was, in the lead under the yellow flag. He beseeched higher powers to let it rain. He pleaded and vented with a four-letter expletive or two.
After all, he was a desperate man who wanted – no, needed – to win and to hell with how he did it.
Sure enough, the rain, make that a deluge, came. The race was over and victory was Gordon’s for the first time since Labor Day weekend at Atlanta in 2011.
“Well, it’s never over until it’s over,” an elated Gordon said after the race. “I’ve won races like this here before. I tell you what; the way our year has gone we’ll definitely take it like this. Man, I’ve never seen the seas part quite like they did going down into Turn 1. “I got a great restart and was able to dive to the inside in front of Kasey Kahne and I saw Jimmie get sideways and he just took them all out.
“And I was like, wow!”
For Gordon, the victory was a powerful catalyst for change. His once seemingly hopeless chances for making the Chase have transformed.
From out of nowhere he is now the second leading contender to make the NASCAR “playoff” as one of two “wildcard” entries.
He’s 13th in the point standings with one victory –which is significant because wins are key for drivers outside the top 10 in points.
Only teammate Kahne, who is 11th in points with two victories, is ahead of him.
Gordon went from pretender to contender in the space of one week – or one race. Could you have predicted that?
Gordon admitted he couldn’t. But he added victory, however accomplished, was due.
“To see this race unfold the way it did, you know, it certainly makes up for a lot of those ‘would have,’ ‘could have,’ ‘should haves’ this year,” he said. “Things are coming together at the right time.
The attitude of this team is that we don’t ever give up.
We go to the race track to win. Today we got the win.
“It’s nice to know that things can still go our way. I hate it for Jimmie and his guys – what happened, anyway?
“But we haven’t had a whole lot go our way this year. To have the first four cars in front of you all slide up the race track, you go by and win the race with the rain – I mean, it’s nice to know that things can still go our way. So this is a big boost for us as a team.”
It can be assumed that, as of now, Gordon is a solid contender for the Chase, given his new status. Considering his twist of fortune at Pocono – yes, it was unpredicted – he might be a lock to avoid a “playoff” shutout for the first time since 2005.
Gordon won’t even think along those lines. He knows that with five races before the Chase begins, anything can happen.
It’s all so unpredictable.
“Now, now, typical media,” Gordon said. “You guys start getting ahead of yourselves here.
“We knew how badly we needed a win and we got it. But that’s half the battle.
“Now in my opinion, this only puts more pressure on us over these next several weeks, but we’re ready for the challenge.
“I think with all we’ve been through this year – I said this also – if we can get to victory lane and get some things to go our way, this team, because of what we’ve been through, that we’ve stayed together and haven’t pointed fingers, it will make us stronger.”
If Gordon wins again before the Chase begins, or at the least runs well enough to make it, his thinking is no one should consider it as, well, unpredictable.
“It wasn’t like we just kind of fluked into it today,” he said. “We put ourselves into position for that good fortune to happen.
“That’s all we’ve been talking about as something we need to do more of and we did it today.
“And we can do it again. We can.”