BY LARRY HAMEL
For the Sun-Times
The checkered flag on a spectacular career is coming up fast in Jeff Gordon’s rear-view mirror. But despite a so-so final hurrah, he has earned the chance to make his last races relevant from a competitive standpoint by qualifying for NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
The four-time points king and three-time Daytona 500 winner — one of stock-car racing’s iconic figures — will retire from full-time Sprint Cup competition after this season. His 2015 campaign hasn’t exactly been one for the ages: no wins, three top-fives and 13 top-10s in the 26-race ‘‘regular season’’ leading into the start of the Chase on Sunday (2 p.m., NBCSN) at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet.
Gordon, 44, driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet SS for powerful Hendrick Motorsports, squeaked into in the Chase last week with a seventh-place finish in Richmond. He is seeded 13th on the Chase grid, joining Hendrick teammates Jimmie Johnson (first) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (sixth) among the 16 drivers eligible for stock-car racing’s version of the playoffs.
‘‘I want to win the Chase,’’ Johnson said, ‘‘but if I can’t, Jeff Gordon would be my No. 1 choice. He
has meant so much to this sport for so long.’’
Gordon usually is one of the favorites, but being a dark horse in this last dance doesn’t faze him.
‘‘I’m just happy to be in it!’’ he exclaimed to reporters during the Chase’s media day at The Murphy in River North. ‘‘Have you seen my season? When I think back on the season and all the trouble that we’ve run into, I’m kind of shocked that we made it [into the Chase]. It’s not from a lack of effort, and it’s not even from a lack of speed — we’ve had decent speed at times. We just haven’t been able to put races together. At the same time, I’m encouraged that we’re in it and that we are a strong team that has gone through a lot, one that never stops fighting.
‘‘As we have seen before, anything is possible when you get into this thing. So I don’t mind being under the radar or not being a favorite, but I certainly hope that by Round 2, that changes.’’
But is the legendary No. 24 car truly good enough to win it all?
‘‘It’s possible . . . anything is possible with this [elimination] format,’’ Gordon said. ‘‘It’s certainly very possible to make it past the first two rounds, because you don’t have to win. We know it’s important to win, in that it assures you a way in, and we are going to be trying to win. But we also know if we put solid, consistent races together, we will move into Round 3, and I’d like to have a shot at Martinsville [the first event of the penultimate Eliminator Round] again the way we did last year to try to get ourselves to Homestead [in the final Chase race].
‘‘I look at the 10 tracks, and they all are good, solid tracks for us, so we’re very capable of stepping up and performing at a high level. All year long, I don’t really think that we’ve lived up to our full potential. If we do that in the Chase, there is no doubt in my mind that we can turn it around.’’
The Hendrick operation isn’t about to go down without exhausting every opportunity. Gordon even noted that ‘‘we have spies everywhere constantly looking at our competitors. We feel that we will bring the absolute best car we’ve had all year to Chicago. And we’ll do that for nine more weeks after that.’’
The race at Chicagoland Speedway carries a noteworthy sidebar for Gordon. In it, he will equal Ricky Rudd’s record for consecutive starts, 788, set from 1981 to 2005.
‘‘I want to break that record,” Gordon said. “It’s a huge accomplishment [even though] it’s easier today because the sport is safer. When I look at what Ricky Rudd went through to set it, that was pretty extraordinary. So I can’t quite compare that. But I’ve been in this sport a long time, and I’ve been in every single race. That is definitely a stat I will look back on and be very proud of.’’
NOTE: Chase-eligibles Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth hooked up in a sizzling battle over the last two laps of the Furious 7 300 on Saturday night, with Busch winning out by 0.791 seconds to post his 74th victory in the Xfinity series. Kenseth passed his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate briefly on the inside in the late going, but Busch retook the lead on a crossover move. Busch won an Xfinity race for the fourth time at the Chicagoland track.
Follow me on Twitter @LPHAMEL.