FONTANA, Calif. -- After overcoming a battery of early pitfalls to eventually and perhaps improbably contend for a victory, it was a dejected Jeff Gordon who emerged from the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports hauler post-race Sunday at Auto Club Speedway.
There was plenty of unhappiness to go around, but he didn't know at whom or at what to direct his displeasure.
"I'm so disappointed. I don't know where to begin," said Gordon, whose string of four straight top-10 finishes to open the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season was snapped with an unsatisfying 13th in the Auto Club 400. "I have a laundry list of things to be upset about."
After sidestepping tire issues and later rallying from an early pit-road speeding penalty and a pit-entrance warning light mixup, Gordon had a potential fourth career victory at the 2-mile track in sight. On what was shaping up to be the final green-flag run, Gordon was running second to teammate Jimmie Johnson before his car developed a vibration with 15 laps left in regulation for the 200-lap race.
With tires wearing out 20 to 25 laps into a green-flag stretch, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson read the tea leaves and backed off their pace. When Johnson's No. 48 slowed with a flat left-front tire with six laps left in regulation, it left Gordon in front by a comfortable margin but with a cautious outlook for the home stretch.
"We knew today was going to be about survival, but we also had an awesome race car," Gordon said. "It was like holding the reins back on a thoroughbred. The car just wanted to go, and we were trying not to abuse it."
The conservative approach ran crosscurrent to Gustafson's mantra.
"The whole day is tough. I'm a racer purist at heart, right, so you just try to go as fast as you can and race the car as fast as you can," Gustafson said. "Today is a difficult situation. ... We got a bad vibration and Jeff backed off. It takes a lot of discipline to do that when you know you're right there and can win the race."
But the lifespan on tires was beginning to expire on the Southern California pavement as the checkered flag neared. Shortly after Johnson's trouble, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose and Clint Bowyer developed problems, forcing Bowyer into a spin and bringing out a final caution period to put the race into green-white-checkered overtime.
The final yellow spelled disaster for Gordon. He dropped from the lead to take four fresh tires and emerged from pit road in seventh place behind gambling teams who took two tires or none. Though he was lined up directly behind eventual winner Kyle Busch, who restarted fifth, he found himself pinched on the low side and bogged back in the running order after the frantic scramble for positions in the two-lap shootout.
"I just don't know where to begin with the disappointment," Gordon reiterated. "Between Goodyear being unprepared for this issue, that call that NASCAR made on going green with the pit road opening at the last second, to the caution coming out at all there at the end. ... All in all, all it comes down to is I did a terrible job on the restart. Kyle Busch started in front of me and won the race. There's no reason we shouldn't have been in the top five."
Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition and racing development, addressed the caution light issue in a post-race news conference. Gordon, Bowyer and Brad Keselowski were caught by the confusion, where the caution lights above the pit entrance flashed red and white to indicate pit road was closed but the official's waving green flag indicated that pit road was open. Pemberton said that the manual signal overrules the computer-controlled signal in the event of a conflict.
"They had trouble getting to the switch, as there's an area there for the official to reach through to display the flag," Pemberton said. "He actually, according to the official, his uniform got hung in the fence and couldn't move."
As strong as Gordon's Chevrolet was, it was almost enough to hurdle all the unusual obstacles until the final restart.
"Just tough," Gustafson said. "It's one of those deals you try not to just let it go because you need to try to improve, but I don't really know what else I would've done."
And while he moved into third place in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points, just two behind new leader Carl Edwards, it was small consolation for the four-time series champion. Even though the new "win-and-you're-in" mentality for converting regular-season victories into Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoff berths had Gordon within sniffing distance of sealing his postseason fate early on, the big-picture incentives held no comfort compared to Sunday's dismay.
"I'm not thinking about the Chase," Gordon said. "I'm thinking about winning."