After taking the Sprint Cup points lead for the first time since the 2009 season following a second place finish at Texas, Jeff Gordon was among 12 leaders in Saturday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway before going on to take seventh.
It wasn’t what Gordon was hoping for, but it will enable him to keep the championship edge through the Easter holiday.
When NASCAR returns to action in two weeks at Richmond International Raceway, Gordon will enter “The Action Track” with a slim, one-point lead over Matt Kenseth, who finished fourth and also had a brief spell at the front on Saturday.
Then again, everyone’s turn at the front was brief compared to that of race winner Kevin Harvick, who led 238 laps en route to his first career win at Darlington.
Going back to Gordon, he figured that for a time, he had a car more than capable of matching Harvick’s.
“I thought we were a little bit better than him on certain runs,” he told Fox Sports. “But there towards the end, we kind of started fading. I got into the wall a little bit and got the right side flattened up a little bit.
“From there, our night went downhill. We just made some mistakes and got behind. We were the last car on two tires [going into the final restart] and we just got ate up on those restarts. But…It’s not bad to come home seventh. I thought it was going to be worse than that.”
Gordon quickly moved from ninth on the grid and passed Joey Logano for the lead on Lap 38, two laps before Ryan Truex crashed to trigger the yellow.
But on the restart at Lap 47, Gordon was unable to hold back Harvick and Kyle Busch, who both got ahead of him before the field reached Turn 2. However, he would re-claim second from Busch just a few laps later.
From there, Gordon would hover around the Top 5 for the majority of the race, running second at multiple points. He briefly mentioned a possible overheating issue with around 80 to go, but said issue did not evolve into something serious.
Gordon was second to Harvick with 50 laps remaining, but after what proved to be the final cycle of green-flag stops, he had fallen back to fifth. He’d claw to fourth after taking two tires during a caution with 10 laps to go, but was unable to hold serve on the late rash of restarts.
“I feel like it was a missed opportunity, but we had another great race car and I’m happy about that,” Gordon said.