If there had been any doubts about the pressure Brad Keselowski had been feeling about his dwindling chances of staying in the 2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, then the explosive events last week both on- and off-track at Charlotte Motor Speedway had emphatically proven the point.
Coming into this weekend's decisive round at Talladega Superspeedway, Keselowski knew that after a tyre failure at Kansas and a disappointing 16th place at Charlotte (following ill-tempered clashes during the race with both Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin that subsequently spilled out into a pit lane brawl) were not nearly enough to ensure he that he would be one of the eight drivers making it through to the third round of the Chase. He was so far behind in points that only a win - which guarantees automatic progression in its own right - would be enough.
"We knew we had to win obviously coming into this week, this day," Keselowski agreed. "We entered today 22 points back, something like that, 19. I can't remember exactly what it was now. That's not good, that's not good at all.
"[But] the great thing about this type of format is that at any given point, we knew if we came here and won, it didn't matter what happened at Charlotte, didn't matter what happened at Kansas with the blown tyre. None of that stuff mattered," he explained.
"When the weekend started, I thought we had the opportunity to do that. We had very, very fast cars at Daytona and Talladega here for the past three restrictor plate races. Really didn't get any of the results we thought we were capable of.
"In the back of my mind, those three races that we had so much speed at and no results to show for it made me feel like we were due," he continued. But instead it seemed that the bad luck that had thwarted those earlier superspeedway runs was set to continue, with Jamie McMurray blowing a tyre and spinning into the side of Keselowski's car, putting a serious dent into the right hand door of the #2 Penske Ford.
"He half-spun, got into our door, kind of tore that up. Pretty hard hit, I thought the car was torn up pretty good," admitted Keselowski, who was relieved to be hold by his crew chief Paul Wolfe that the damage was in fact relatively minor. "We maybe lost just a touch of speed, but not enough to kind of overcome the will to win we had today.
"From there it was about finding the track position, making the right moves, finding the right lanes. I thought we were in good shape having run top five, top 10 most of the race," he continued. However, a caution on lap 175 came in the middle of a pit stop sequence, crucially before Keselowski had made his own final visit of the day to pit lane.
"On that green flag pit cycle, the yellow came out and kind of trapped us behind a lot of cars we were going to be in front of. We ended up restarting 16th or something like that with 10 to go - that felt like a death sentence in itself," he recalled. "But we kept our composure. I worked really well with my team mates Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney ... We made kind of the perfect move together to go from 16th to second in three or four laps there. That put us in position to really capitalise on the last two yellows. From there we did just that."
At the final green-white-chequered restart attempt, Keselowski started from the front and just managed to fend off Ryan Newman, who then faded on the last lap. Taking up position immediately behind Keselowski was Kenseth, the driver with whom he'd exchanged sharp words and more at Charlotte. Instead of trying any retaliation, however, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver held fire and opted to cross the line just behind Keselowski to ensure that they both progressed to the next round of the Chase.
"I didn't feel uncomfortable in the least bit," said Keselowski of the moment he realised the two had ended up running close together on the final lap of the most important race of the year to them both. "It just so happened to be that Matt was leading his lane, and his lane had the best run at the end. I came down and blocked it. That was enough to seal our fate as a winner, seal his fate as second.
"It's kind of funny to me personally how that stuff works out. I'm sure we'll race each other some more; maybe something bad will happen, maybe it won't. That's part of it. But for today we're happy with the result and we'll move on."
As for Kenseth, he denied having given Keselowski a helpful push to the line in the final seconds and insisted he'd been going all-out for the win for himself. "I thought maybe I would get a big enough run to get underneath Brad, but I just didn't quite have the speed to do it," he said.
Victory this weekend means that Keselowski joins his young Penske team mate Joey Logano in the final eight. The pair have now both won races in both of the two rounds of the Chase so far, which must surely make them favourites for the title going forward. Hendrick Motorsport's Jeff Gordon and Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick have picked up the two other race wins.
Looking ahead to the next round of the Chase, the points are reset once more and past wins count for nothing so it's back to a level playing field - which suits Keselowski just fine after the narrow escape he's just had following poor rounds at Kansas and Charlotte.
"As far as what that means going forward, I don't know," Keselowski mused. "We all hit the reset button as soon as we leave this track. The six wins that we have [in 2014] mean nothing. Everyone has zero points within the top eight. We still have to go out and perform over these next four weeks, especially Homestead. We got to get to Homestead first, right? Got to get in that top four, then get to Homestead and really deliver.
"I think we're in a really good spot for these next four races, but we've got to still execute," he said. "We're in a very good position. It would be nice to go to Martinsville and win, get a grandfather clock [trophy], have three weeks to really think about Homestead. That's my mentality moving forward."
If he did go on to secure his second Sprint Cup championship title in three years, Keselowski said that he might be able to take it in a little better this time around than he did when he clinched his first title in 2012.
"The first one still feels like a dream," he said. "I think any racer would tell you that one win is great, but it doesn't really sink in, whether that's a race or championship. It's when you get to multiple wins or multiple championships to really start to almost appreciate where you're at, understand the significance, think about it that way.
"For me, I'm very, very proud of our 2012 championship," he added. "The opportunities are in front of us. I want to make the most of them. Beyond that it's hard to say how I would feel if I won another one. I sure would like to find out.
"That's going to be a huge challenge, and we know that. But as far as what today says for that, it says that we're capable of a lot."