A look at Jeff Gordon heading into the Sprint Cup Championship

2015 Rearview: Donations, cars, an 18-liter wine bottle and even his own blackjack table - Jeff Gordon's victory lap season has been a remarkable showcase of gratitude from one of the most influential drivers in NASCAR history. The retirement circus followed "The Kid" from track-to-track throughout the season, leading to tears shed and memories shared by all. But that was off the track, on the track Gordon was held winless through the first 33 races, and was in danger of missing the Chase for just the second time in his 24-year Cup career. Once he qualified in Richmond however, the switch flipped. Riding high on the back of his Martinsville win and six consecutive top-10 finishes, Gordon has scored more points (334) than any other driver in the Chase.   

His Career: What more can be said about Gordon's storied career. Only David Pearson (105) and Richard Petty (200) have more career wins than the future Hall of Famer (93), and a victory this weekend would net Gordon his fifth NASCAR Championship trophy. Considering he was winless in his final full season until two weeks ago, his sudden resurgence has the No. 24 team confident they can end his career in a big way.

History at Homestead: How's a win and seven Top-5 finishes (most ever at Homestead) for kicks? He's led more laps at the track than any of the other remaining Chase drivers, he's focused and he's determined. The man is a living legend, and he'll look to put an exclamation mark on his storybook season this weekend.
A look at Kyle Busch heading into the Sprint Cup Championship

2015 Rearview: After an XFINITY Series crash left Kyle Busch with broken right leg and left foot, sidelining him for the first 11 Sprint Cup races of 2015, it felt like a run at his first Cup title would have to wait another year. Four weeks after his return Busch went on a Petty-like run, winning four out of five races in June and July - including three straight wins at Kentucky, Loudon and Indianapolis. He followed up the string of victories with some of the most point-savvy driving the Chase era, with 10 Top-10 finishes through 15 races and Top-5 showings in each of the Eliminator Round races. All four JGR drivers raced their way into the original Chase field, but it's Busch, playing with house money and maybe driving better than he has at any point in his career, who's the last one standing.

His Career: Busch has just one Chase race win to his name over the course of his career, coming 10 years ago (his rookie season) at the 2005 Checker Auto Parts 500 in Phoenix when he wasn't even Chase eligible. Yet he isn't without some measure of success, with two top-five Championship finishes, including fourth in 2013. With what he's overcome this season, 2015 might already go down as a career-defining year for the No. 18 driver. A Sprint Cup Championship would cement that.

History at Homestead: Of the Championship Four, Busch has the hardest time figuring out the South Florida track. An average finish of 23.1 (19th or worse showing in 10 career Cup starts at Homestead) and just one Top-5 finish to his name, he'll need to re-write his tumultuous Homestead history. But after the season he's had, would you really be surprised if he kept the magic going?

A look back at the 1997 Pontiac Excitement 400

Sunday, March 2, 1997 – The Pontiac Excitement 400 at RIR was nothing less than exciting on a crisp, sunny Sunday afternoon. While some folks may remember it as the last regularly-scheduled day race at RIR before moving to a night-races-only schedule for the next eighteen years, others are probably more familiar with the on-track action that took place that day.

After starting 7th, Rusty Wallace tangled early with Ricky Rudd on lap 6, immediately putting him all the way in the back of the field.

371 consecutive green flag laps later – yes, you read that right – without any help from a caution flag, Rusty working his way through traffic all the way up to P1.

Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett controlled much of the first half of the race, especially Jarrett who racked up 172 laps led over the course of the 400-lap event, until Rusty jumped back on the scene to take over the lead on lap 159. The two battled it out for the next 43 laps when Jarrett finally snatched it back.

At that point, it looked like Jarrett might be able to hold on to the lead for the rest of the race, even with the momentum clearly in Rusty’s favor less than 100 laps ago. But, during Jarrett’s final green flag pit stops he lost nine seconds due to dropped lug nuts, costing him the lead and putting Rusty back in prime position for the checkered flag.

Remember now, the last – and only – caution flag up ‘til now flew back on lap 6. With 19 laps remaining in the race, Kenny Wallace’s engine blew, giving Jarrett a huge break, much to his brother’s chagrin. At this point, there were only four cars still on the lead lap: Rusty, Jarrett, Geoff Bodine, and Ernie Irvan.

In the top spot one lap down, Jeff Gordon connected with Irvan while trying to line up for the restart. Seven laps later, Irvan hit the wall in Turn 4 hard with a cut tire, for which he blamed Gordon.

Later, Rusty would say: “I was real surprised at Gordon. He might have thought he was racing for the win. I don't know. I've never seen anybody race like that with the leaders when he's a lap down, but he did."

Back to lap 398 – we’ve got three to go ‘til the end, putting Rusty, Jarrett, and Bodine in a three-car shootout for the win. Rusty’s long history of short-track racing served him well – he smoked Jarrett to hold on to the lead.

"You think about those old short-track days," Wallace said. "I laid back about a car length and a half, and, just about the time I thought [Jarrett] was going to pick it up, I nailed it. It worked out perfect."

Jarett would claim a third-place finish, after losing both the chance at the win and a rough battle with Bodine for second.

"Rusty just got the best of me there," Jarrett said. "I thought I had a good start. I saw him drop back and try to get a run on the restart. I thought I had him, [because I] had him slowed down. I just messed up. It's my fault we didn't win the race.”

Don’t feel too bad for Jarrett thought, he returned to the fall race at RIR with a vengeance. On top of winning the Exide NASCAR Select Batteries 400, his average speed of 109.047 easily topped Rusty’s during the spring event.

However, you’d be hard-pressed to find another performance like Rusty’s during that final day race. In Rusty’s own words: "You know the [car] is stout when you go from 41st to first, and pass them all and take the lead. I'm used to taking the lead via pit stops and maybe passing one or two, but I've never passed 41 of them. That was a tough one."

Indeed; an RIR tradition of exciting, tough racing on Sunday afternoon we’re excited to see return in 2016 and beyond.

Be there to witness Sunday short-track racing make its historic return to Richmond International Raceway on April 22, 23, and 24th.

Need tickets? Sign up here to be the first to get yours before they go on sale to the public January 15th
A look at Martin Truex Jr heading into the Sprint Cup Championship

2015 Rearview: Despite a career year from the 35 year old driver out of Mayetta, New Jersey, Martin Truex Jr is considered the "underdog" of the Championship Four. It's a spot the single-car team has found themselves in all year, and they've responded with career marks in Top-5 and Top-10 finishes for Truex.  A memorable start to the season saw the No. 78 driver score a Top-10 finish in 15 of his first 16 races, highlighted by a win at the Tricky Triangle in the beginning of June. Things tapered off somewhat in the second half of the season, but Truex has rounded into form through the first nine Chase races with five Top-10 finishes and a third place showing at another 1.5 miler, Charlotte. 

His Career: It's truly been a career year for the 12-year vet. As someone who's never finished higher that 11th in points in his entire career, NASCAR's Cinderella Man now has a chance to win it all. In a season where four teams (Stewart-Haas, Hendrick, Penske, and Joe Gibbs) took home 34 of the 35 races, Truex has the chance to lead a single-car team to a NASCAR Championship for the first time since Alan Kulwicki in 1992. 

History at Homestead: This "underdog" has got some HMS bite. His average finish at the track (10.0) is stronger than either Gordon or Busch, and he's finished sixth or better in three of his last four South Florida contests. His best finish (2nd) came in the Ford 400 back in 2006. 

A look at the chances of Keselowski, Harvick and Logano this weekend in Phoenix.

Last Week: After leading a track-record 312 of the race's 334 laps in dominating fashion, Brad Keselowski saw his Championship Round ticket flutter away into the Texas air when Jimmie Johnson took the lead with four laps to go. While the AAA Texas 500 was a rebound from the 32-place finish at Martinsville the week before, Keselowski still sits 19 points behind the fourth place Martin Trux Jr. Still, with a Top-10 finish in six of his last seven races at Phoenix point towards a strong showing from the No. 2 in the final Eliminator Round race.

Earlier This Year: It was the Kevin Harvick show. And the year before that. And the year before that. The defending champ has four straight wins at the one miler, and his seven total victories in Avondale are more than any other driver. Ever. Things look like a lock for the No.4 driver, but just remember -  folks were saying the same thing about Jimmie Johnnson heading into Dover.

Who To Watch: After dominating the Contender Round, things haven't gone as planned for Joey Logano's team during the first two legs of the Eliminator Round. Sitting 63 points behind Truex, his game plan is simple: win and get in. With four straight Top-10 showings at Phoenix, only Harvick and Keselowski have collected more points at the track during that span. Look for him to go after more than just points this time around.

A look at Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch this weekend in Texas

Last Week: It took 33 races, but the Jeff Gordon swan song hit its highest note yet with a dramatic win in Martinsville. Leading 35 laps en route to his ninth grandfather clock, the future Hall of Famer described the victory “unlike anything he'd ever experienced.” But if we know Gordon, he's already turned his focus to the Great American Speedway. His lone Texas win came back in 2009, but he's nabbed two top-10's in his last three races at the Fort Worth track, so the odds of him building on his Chase momentum are strong.

Earlier This Year: Stop me if you've heard this before, but Kevin Harvick was certainly one to watch at the Duck Commander 500 earlier this year. While the No. 4 driver does have three wins on the year, it feels like he could have had a dozen. One of his twenty top-5 showings came back in April at Texas with a second place finish. While he has yet to find a win at there, his average finish is stronger than any other driver remaining in the Chase. This weekend is a good opportunity for the defending champ to secure a spot in the Championship Four and defend his title.

Who To Watch: There was a time earlier this season when it felt like Kyle Busch could run the table on the 2015 NASCAR Season. Momentum has slowed down a bit since the Joe Gibbs driver won four in a five race stretch back in June/July, but this weekend could be one where he kicks the tires and lights those Chase fires. With a win, eight top-5 finishes and a fourth place showing in last year's AAA Texas 500, he has a better Texas resume than any remaining Chase driver.