Of all the teams looking to have one of the strongest hands in this year's Chase for the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, it was surely Hendrick Motorsports that looked to be the marque to beat.

The team managed to get all four of its drivers - Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne - into the second round of the Chase, taking up a third of the available slots. But three races later and only one of them has made it through to the final eight, with two of the sport's most famous and popular drivers - Johnson and Earnhardt - among those to fall.

"It's very difficult," admitted Gordon, who is now the last man left standing in the title play-offs from the Hendrick contingent. "We knew that Jimmie and Junior were in tough positions, but if anybody could win this race, either one of those guys could.

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"I knew [Kasey] was going to race hard all day and he was in and out, in and out. I really thought he was going to make it, but I guess [Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt] Kenseth getting that late charge may have been the game changer there.

"These are three guys that could have been major factors in this championship," he added. "They are great teams, great drivers and friends of mine; I hate to see them not in there. But we are going to try to make Hendrick proud and go out there and get ourselves to Homestead."

It had hardly been a walk in the park for Gordon to get through, either. He finished the race in 26th place which left him only three points ahead of Kahne who was the first driver in the drop zone. If Gordon had dropped a couple more positions in the final restart and Kahne gained a few then it would have been Gordon crashing out of the Chase rather than his team mate.

"We were in, we were out. We were in good position and bad position. Those last couple of laps were the most nerve-racking laps of my life, so I'm glad they're over," Gordon admitted after the final restart left him stuck on the inside line which just didn't get going and cost him multiple positions. "I'm just mentally drained right now. It's always tough racing here at Talladega trying to put yourself in position to win. But when you have that much on the line and you know that your championship hopes are right there in that final moment, it's nerve racking.

"If I never have to come back to Talladega, I'll be fine with that. I'm just excited about our chances to get to Homestead, and those chances come in these next few races - Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix," he added. "I can't wait for Martinsville. I can't wait for Texas. I can't wait for Phoenix. All are great tracks for us. This team has done some amazing work this year. These next three are where we are really going to shine and show it."

For Kahne, 12th place and an early exit from the Chase was a disappointing end to what had looked at times to be a very promising afternoon at the office.

"It was tough if you weren't in the top few spots," he explained. "Once we were up there early on we could race. We had a great Farmer's Insurance Chevy, led laps and ran in the top-three and back to the lead. Once I was 10th or eighth, it was just really difficult to get back to that point.

"You just try and get the best finish you can," he added. "Basically the restart before, they all checked up in front of me so I went high to get momentum and that didn't work. I don't know why that didn't work, but it didn't. "

Because he'd been running last in the points among the Chase contenders coming into Talladega, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had been clear about his objective - he absolutely needed to win to progress. And for a time he was able to stick to his game plan, quickly moving up from 29th place on the grid to take the lead on lap 75 and for the next 29, to the deafening delight of the Junior Nation fans in the grandstands.

But it wasn't to be, and Earnhardt ended up losing the draft toward the end of the race and been shuffled back into the mid-field where he was caught up in a chain reaction of minor contact and ended up spinning out to trigger the final caution of the day.

"Got with the #16 a little bit," said Earnhardt of the bump he'd taken from Greg Biffle's car. "I don't know if I came down on him or what it. I thought I was holding my line, but we were all kind of tight back there.

"We were just running along there behind the #5 [Kasey Kahne]. I don't think I changed lanes or anything, I was following him on the outside and just got hooked on the corner panel," said Earnhardt of the incident that put the final nail in coffin of his 2014 Chase hopes. "I guess the #16 [Greg Biffle] moved up into us, or something there. I thought I was sort of going straight. I don't know if we were four-wide or whatever there

"That is the way it goes at the end of these races," he shrugged. "We weren't in a good position there in the back. It looks like he kind of hooked me a little bit, but maybe I came down. I don't know.

"We worked real hard all day long trying to run up front," he continued. "I knew we needed to be up front all day long. We got shuffled to the back. I made a move trying to get up front and it didn't work out. So, we lost a lot of track position and never got it back.

"You need to be up front. You need to be in the top 4 the last few restarts. Those are the guys that have a shot at it. You know you're not going to pass ten or 12 cars there in six or seven laps. We tried. It just didn't work out."