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Race Coverage Writing
Fifth Place
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com

Gordon's win puts exclamation point on messy day at Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Jeff Gordon couldn't believe what he just saw. Matt Kenseth had just turned Joey Logano hard into the Martinsville Speedway wall. The fans erupted in cheers. And Gordon knew what he had to do.

He made the fans cheer even louder.

The soon-to-be-retired Gordon put himself in position to capture a fifth Sprint Cup championship by winning Sunday in the opening race of the Eliminator Round. His first victory of the season came as a result of having a great car at his best track -- and Kenseth's retaliation against Logano, who had just led for the 207th lap and was in control of the race with less than 57 laps remaining before Kenseth imploded the 2015 championship picture.

"When that happened, I was like, 'This is our opportunity right here to win this race,'" Gordon said. "Boom, we got to go do it."

The race Sunday was much like eating the famous Martinsville hot dog. Some will celebrate it as the greatest thing ever, a tasty, iconic moment rooted in history as Gordon earned one of the four spots available for drivers to compete for the championship in three weeks at Homestead. Others will see it as a disgusting, stomach-churning moment loaded with the gross slop Brian France created with the elimination-style Chase and also his endorsement a couple of weeks ago when Logano turned Kenseth for the win at Kansas Speedway.

The Gordon victory will only help NASCAR. The star of the past 23 years hasn't won a championship since 2001 and now will have a shot at Homestead. Kenseth's dumping of Logano, while celebrated by fans, could soil NASCAR's reputation and call into question its credibility as it determines whether to sanction Kenseth.

Gordon knows about retaliation. He dumped Clint Bowyer in retaliation at Phoenix in 2012, earning a $100,000 fine and a 25-point penalty. At the time, Bowyer was mathematically still in contention to win the title.

"I could relate to frustration getting the best of you ... I get it," Gordon said. "You might have some regrets later, but I understand why you make that choice at the moment.

"I think there's a lot of different things that you can look at it because I feel like what you say and how you do it, things that you do, come full circle. That exists on both sides of that."

Logano's title hopes weren't ruined by Kenseth but severely damaged. Logano punting Kenseth at Kansas meant Kenseth -- who replaced Logano at Joe Gibbs Racing at the start of 2012 -- had only one race to overcome the points damage and advance to the Eliminator Round to have a shot at the title.

Kenseth came up short at Talladega last week. So in the opening race of the Eliminator Round and after contact with Logano's teammate Brad Keselowski put Kenseth 10 laps down, Kenseth returned the favor Sunday.

Finishing 37th, Logano is 28 points behind fourth-place Kevin Harvick in the standings with two races left in the round. With Gordon already earning one of the four championship spots at Homestead, there are three spots left. The remaining Chase drivers can earn bids by winning one of the next two races (Texas and Phoenix), with points determining who gets the remaining bid or bids.

This elimination-style format, plus France's saying that Logano's turn of Kenseth at Kansas was "quintessential NASCAR," brought out the worst in Kenseth.

"It's a no-holds-barred, wild, Wild West," said Kenseth teammate Denny Hamlin. "Sure, when people crown the statement that a 'driver's doing what he's got to do' and they became OK with that statement, you're just opening up Pandora's box.

"Everyone is just doing what they have to do I guess. It's a bad statement; it's an ugly statement. I wish we could all do this fair and square and the fastest person win, but I just don't know if that's going to be the case."

But does it need to be fair? The system isn't designed for it, and there were plenty of people totally stoked with what happened Sunday. Part of Gordon's victory celebration included Gordon giving several fans high-fives as they lined the front of the grandstands. The fans stayed into the darkness and continued to cheer throughout the Victory Lane celebration as Gordon's interviews were broadcast over the loudspeakers.

"This is one of the finest moments I think I've ever had in my career, I'll be honest," Gordon said after his 93rd career victory, third on the all-time list. "It's just because what this year means.

"This is my final year, my final race at Martinsville, punching our ticket to Homestead, having my family here, the hard work this team has put together [and] that reaction from the fans."

The fans had one other reaction. They continued to cheer when highlights of Kenseth dumping Logano were shown after the race. They apparently love the Wild West, or they love it when it happens to a driver who isn't one of their favorites.

"I love Brian France, but when he says that drivers are doing what they have to do, it seems like he's promoting this type of racing, so that's tough to crown a true champion when things go like this," Hamlin said.

In that sense, NASCAR has a mess on its hands. It could issue Kenseth the same penalty it gave Gordon, but will that be enough to prevent something like what Kenseth did from happening in the future?

NASCAR's response will go a long way as far as a message to drivers and fans of what it wants in this "contact sport" that features a "boys have at it" philosophy. It did nothing last week when it could be argued Kevin Harvick purposely caused a wreck to end the race at Talladega to keep his position in the Chase, something that NASCAR officials said they couldn't prove was done intentionally.

NASCAR executive vice president Steve O'Donnell said Sunday night he doesn't believe the Chase format drove Kenseth to do what he did.

"The Chase format creates great racing on the track," O'Donnell said. "You saw six of the eight competitors who were going for a championship lead laps today. Drivers at their best.

"You're going to see drivers going door to door, and in the history of NASCAR we've seen that. I'd go back to this incident as a one-off that we'll look at."

What NASCAR decides Tuesday could affect how the Chase drivers compete over the next two races. Kyle Busch (fifth at Martinsville) and Martin Truex Jr. (sixth) are nine points ahead of the current cutoff, while Harvick (eighth) has a seven-point edge on Carl Edwards (14th). Keselowski (32nd) is 24 points behind Harvick, Kurt Busch (34th) is 26 behind and then there's Logano at 28 back.

Just how far will they go to have a shot at Homestead?

"It's boys being boys right now," said Kyle Busch, a teammate of Kenseth's. "You got to be consistent. I definitely feel NASCAR is very consistent in being inconsistent on calls. I think it's B.S. ... But they don't have to listen to me for squat. It really doesn't matter what I say."

Both Kenseth and team owner Joe Gibbs left the track without comment after meeting Sunday night with NASCAR officials.

"Matt felt like he was justified with how Joey wrecked him at Kansas and then was arrogant about it afterward," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished fourth. "That was really what got under Matt's skin more than anything -- about how Joey was arrogant about it. When you damn wreck a guy, admit it, you know?"

Kenseth wouldn't admit to intentionally wrecking Logano, saying that he had trouble with his right-front tire and couldn't turn his vehicle. Logano called it a cowardly move, and while he said it wasn't over, he also said he has to concentrate on winning a championship.

"We're not going to let this take us down," Logano said. "This is a strong team and he'll have his."

Logano has the most wins of any driver with six, but thanks to this system he now has a hill to climb while Gordon, who won for the first time this year, knows he will be one of the four drivers in contention at Homestead. Yes, Gordon, whose top-5s this year -- five -- are fewer than the number of Logano's wins.

"Nothing is more frustrating than when people call in [to radio shows] and say: If Jeff Gordon doesn't win this year, it's going to tarnish his career, he's got to get a win, he's going to have to win to make Homestead, all this stuff," Gordon said.

"I hear it. I agree. I felt like if we didn't win this year, it was going to take away from it a little bit."

It didn't look like Gordon would win a race this year. Gordon had led more than 10 laps in just four races this year. But if he could pick any place where he'd have the best chance to win, it would be Martinsville, where he won for a record ninth time.

"I felt like if we points raced our way into Homestead, that would help make up for it if we didn't win," Gordon said. "I feel like if you're going to win the championship, you have to win this, not just here, but at Homestead.

"I'm hoping we got one more in us."