Jeff Gordon laments Chase elimination, holds Keselowski and Texas incident as main reason

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Despite falling short of the championship round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Jeff Gordon has nothing to be ashamed of.

In his quest for the fifth Cup championship of his career, the so-called “Drive For Five” – in what would have been his 13th try at it since his last title in 2001 – Gordon had arguably his best season in close to a decade.

That’s why Gordon is understandably disappointed to have come so close, and yet ultimately fell short.

“I’m disappointed,” Gordon said. “I thought if we came out of here second, even if it was to Kevin or (Brad) Keselowski, I thought we’d still make it in.

“That’s pretty disappointing to do all of that. It just makes last week (at Texas) that much more disappointing and I’m going to be thinking about that one for a while.”

Even so, Gordon and the No. 24 team, who were the only remaining hope for Hendrick Motorsports to win the championship, have nothing to be ashamed about for falling just one point – ONE POINT! – short of reaching the championship round.

“Yeah, it’s disappointing, but we have a lot to hold our heads up high about – the way that we raced this race and this whole Chase and the whole season,” Gordon said. “We raced hard. We raced together as a team.

“But I hope we taught somebody (Keselowski) that you can race clean and still go out there and give it your best. You don’t have to wreck people to make it in the Chase or win the championship.”

That’s why even if he had been able to catch Harvick in the closing laps and likely would have had to wreck him to win the race himself, Gordon said he would not have done so in much the same fashion that Ryan Newman forced Kyle Larson into the wall to earn the one extra point for Newman to make the Chase – and Gordon to be eliminated.

“I’m not going to wreck a guy that’s racing me clean all year long just to make it into the Chase,” Gordon said of Harvick. “That’s not what it’s all about for me.

“You’re not going to go win the championship next week by doing that. So, it’s just unfortunate. It’s just unfortunate. We did everything so good this year.”

But if there’s anyone Gordon is going to blame for falling short, it won’t be Newman, but rather Keselowski.

“That one race, that one race (last week at Texas) is going to stick with me for a little while,” Gordon said. “I got over it this week, knowing that we could come here and compete like this. Now it makes it sting that much more.”

Perhaps what makes the Chase elimination pill even more bitter to swallow is that Gordon finished second to race winner Harvick, yet still was eliminated.

“We did everything right, in my opinion,” Gordon said. “We did everything that we could control. We ran smart races. We were aggressive when we needed to be. We had great race cars. When we needed to qualify up front, we qualified up front.

“Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) called a great race today. We fell back; had some issues on a pit stop, and fought our way back up there and held on for second there at the end. We gave it everything. I’m proud of that.”

There had been speculation that Gordon might call it quits after this season, whether he won the championship or not.

But he allayed those fears totally after Sunday’s race.

“I certainly will (return in 2015) because of this race team,” Gordon said. “They have inspired me this year. They’ve given me great cars and great confidence.

“They’ve given me such great cars, and pit stops and pit strategy and it’s been a lot of fun this year. I think nobody is more deserving and has worked harder to be at Homestead battling for this championship than this No. 24 team. But some things are out of our control.”

To his credit, even though he didn’t reach the championship, Gordon still tried to find something to smile about.

“I told my wife when the day started that no matter what happens today, we have a lot to smile about and be happy about,” Gordon said. “We have two wonderful children. We’ve worked our guts out this year as a race team and we’ve won races and showed everybody what kind of race team we are.

“And for that I’m extremely proud. I knew if this moment happened and we had that kind of performance today, it would be very tough to take. But that’s the reality of it.”

While Gordon still has a chance to win the season-ending race, he called Sunday the most empty feeling he’s ever had after driving a great race – but with a caveat.

“Yeah, it is,” Gordon said, then adding with a laugh, “Besides last week (after his run-in with Keselowski).”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

NHRA: Top 10 storylines of the 2019 season

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The 2019 NHRA season wound up being one where there was almost as much news and highlights made off the drag strip as on it.

That was the case in two of the top four storylines for the recently completed season, with the top story occurring even before the first pass down a drag strip in competition took place.

We’ve also included a poll for you to vote and see if you agree with our picks or not.

Here’s how our top 10 looks:

1. A Force-ful departure: Just two weeks before the 2019 season was due to open, Funny Car driver Courtney Force, daughter of 16-time champion John Force, stunned the drag racing world by announcing she was taking a hiatus from the sport – although she insisted she was not retiring. The wife of IndyCar driver Graham Rahal, Force turned over her high dollar Advance Auto Parts sponsorship to sister and Top Fuel driver Brittany Force, who had previously been sponsored by Monster Energy. Courtney Force became the second high-profile female drag racer to step away from the sport in just over a year, joining fellow Funny Car driver Alexis DeJoria, who went on hiatus after the 2017 season. This past October, DeJoria announced she would return to full-time NHRA competition in 2020. But as for Courtney, she remains on hiatus for at least the time being.

2. Torrence’s Texas two-step: Proud Texas native Steve Torrence won his second consecutive Top Fuel championship in 2019, winning nine races (including eight in a nine-race stretch). While Torrence enjoyed an outstanding season in 2018, winning 11 races and becoming the first driver in NHRA history to win all six races in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs, he won just one playoff race in 2019. But he still managed to earn just enough points to hold off his closest rival, Doug Kalitta, by a mere three points for the second championship. Also of note: Steve’s father Billy finished a career-best fifth in the final standings, even though he competed in just 16 of the season’s 24 national events.

3. What happened to ‘The Sarge’? Tony Schumacher is the winningest Top Fuel driver in NHRA history, with eight championships and 84 national event wins. But he was essentially AWOL in 2019, failing to compete in even one race. The reason: sponsorship. Or more precisely, lack thereof. The U.S. Army, which had sponsored Schumacher for nearly 20 years – which prompted him to adopt the colorful nickname of “The Sarge” — pulled its funding after the 2018 season, leaving Schumacher without a fully-funded ride for 2019. Rather than try to race piecemeal from race to race with limited sponsorship, the son of team owner Don Schumacher decided to watch the season from the sidelines. How Schumacher could not attract a new big dollar sponsor, given his domination and success in the Top Fuel class, is almost unfathomable. Unfortunately, it’s looking like Schumacher – who turns 50 on Christmas Day – may remain sidelined in 2020.

John Force

4. A Force to be reckoned with once again: Even though he fell short of adding to his record 16 NHRA Funny Car championships, the 2019 season was definitely one of resurgence for John Force, the sport’s winningest and most popular driver ever. Force, who turned 70 years old in May, isn’t letting age slow him down, earning two wins during the season – including a milestone 150th Funny Car victory of his career – and finished fourth in the standings (up from ninth in 2018, seventh in 2017, and his best finish since he ended up fourth in 2016).

Robert Hight

5. At the Hight of his success: Robert Hight isn’t flashy or verbose as his boss, John Force. But when he’s not working as president of John Force Racing, the soft-spoken Hight has become one of the premier drivers in Funny Car history. In 2019, he earned his third Funny Car championship – his second in the last three seasons and third since 2009. Along the way, he captured six wins (including a milestone 50th win), was runner-up three other times, reached the semifinals five times and led all drivers as the No. 1 qualifier for eight races (a full one-third of the season). This was perhaps the most dominant championship of all for Hight, including leading the Funny Car standings for 23 of the 24-race season.

Erica Enders

6. Erica’s baaaaccckkkk: Erica Enders is back on top of her game, and on top of the Pro Stock category, earning her third championship in the last six seasons (and first since 2015). Admittedly, her championship came in the first year of a shortened Pro Stock schedule, having been cut from a full 24 races to just 18. Still, the Texas native won two races, finished runner-up three other times and reached the semifinals four other times. Also of note, Enders’ Elite Motorsports teammate, five-time Pro Stoc champ Jeg Coughlin Jr., came oh, so close to winning his sixth title, finishing just 21 points behind Enders in the final standings.

Doug Kalitta

7. What does he have to do to win first championship? Doug Kalitta came the closest he ever has to earning the first Top Fuel championship of his 20-year drag racing career, finishing just three points behind Steve Torrence in the Top Fuel rankings. It was almost heartbreaking as Kalitta seemingly did everything he needed to do to win the championship, including winning the season-ending race in Pomona, California, one of three wins he earned (as well as two runner-up finishes and six semifinal showings). Kalitta began the season with a win at Pomona, as well. But Torrence came into the season-ending event at Pomona with just enough of a lead (and reached the semifinals) to hold off Kalitta’s challenge. How close was Kalitta from winning the championship? If he had advanced one more round in any of the six playoff races, he would have bested Torrence. Unfortunately, in a sense, Kalitta – nephew of legendary NHRA team owner and racer Connie Kalitta – has become the Mark Martin of NHRA Top Fuel: always a bridesmaid but never a bride when it comes to winning a championship. But there’s still hope, Kalitta fans: he’s going to give it another try in 2020. Maybe that will be his year – finally.

Andrew Hines

8. He’s one heck of an easy rider: Andrew Hines made it look easy in 2019 – although it was far from it – when he earned his sixth career NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle championship (and first since 2015). Son of past PSM champion Byron Hines, Andrew Hines enjoyed one of the most dominating seasons ever of his career — not to mention one of the most dominating seasons in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category — winning eight of the 16 PSM events contested, along with earning two runner-up and three semifinal finishes. Hines held off 2016 PSM champ Jerry Savoie by 26 points and 2018 champ Matt Smith by 46 points.

JR Todd

9. What a difference a year makes: JR Todd had an exceptional season in 2018, with six wins, two runner-up finishes and six semifinal showings. Not surprisingly, the Indiana native went on to win the Funny Car championship that season for Kalitta Motorsports. But one year later, Todd was seemingly an afterthought when it came to challenging for the Funny Car crown once again. For as good as he was in 2018, Todd struggled through much of the 2019 season with just one win, three runner-up and two other semifinal finishes, ultimately finishing seventh in the standings, a distant 246 points behind series champ Robert Hight, who was second to Todd in 2018.

Austin Prock

10. Strong start for sport’s top rookie: When your father is renowned crew chief Jimmy Prock, it’s clear that the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree. Such is the case of Austin Prock, who finished his first season in Top Fuel by earning NHRA’s rookie of the year honors. The younger Prock finished eighth in the Top Fuel season standings, including one win and five semifinal finishes driving for John Force Racing. Ironically, he finished one spot higher than three-time Top Fuel champ Antron Brown, who had a rough season, finishing ninth in the standings, with no wins, two runner-up showings and reached the semifinals just five times.

Follow @JerryBonkowski