Four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon came within 0.344s of booking a place in the 2014 title decider on Sunday, but lost out to his Hendrick Motorsport team mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the final run to the line.
If Gordon had taken the win then it would have meant his ninth win at the half-mile Martinsville Speedway - and more importantly automatic progression to the final round of the Chase, the winner-take-all season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 16.
But instead Gordon had to settle for merely holding the championship points lead after the first of three races comprising the Eliminator 8 round, and that precarious situation could easily be undone by setbacks at either Texas or Phoenix.
No that Gordon was blaming Earnhardt for denying him peace of mind in the Chase. Instead, it was the pit lane speeding penalty he picked up 200 laps into the race that he was most regretting, as it dropped him out of the lead of the race and put him all the way back to 30th place, leaving him facing a long march all the way back to the front again.
"Unfortunately I lost this race today because of my mistake on pit road," he said. "That was on me. We played catch‑up for the rest of the day. Put ourselves in contention at the end."
And Gordon wasn't disputing the penalty, either: "Completely my fault," he conceded. "We do two settings, one in first gear, one in second gear. A late sequence for each one. I ran second gear under my light sequence for first gear. Plain and simple.
"I looked up and Jamie [McMurray] was way behind me. I was like, Uh‑oh. I knew right then I was speeding. Surprised I didn't hear anything in the box. I thought for sure they were going to say something. They didn't say anything till I left pit road. But I knew it right away."
Gordon did manage to get back to the front later in the race, but Gordon felt that the the setback had nonetheless put him on the back foot.
"I feel like had we been in control of the race more like we had been earlier, I think we would have been in a much better position to win the race," he said. "Still overall a great battle. It wasn't easy to come back up through there. We avoided a lot of things and got pretty fortunate.
"Wish it could have been a win, wish I hadn't made that mistake, but still second's pretty good," he added, taking comfort in his points advantage over the other seven drivers that currently remain in the Chase. "Yeah, good points today."
The result also gave Hendrick Motorsports a 1-2 lockout, the ideal way for the organisation to commemorate the tenth anniversary of its darkest hour when several members of the team management and of team owner Rick Hendrick's family had died in a plane crash while travelling to Martinsville for the 2004 race.
"Paying tribute to those folks we lost here 10 years ago by doing a 1‑2 finish is really something," Gordon agreed. "We know how much Martinsville means to us."
But despite knowing what it meant to the team, Gordon admitted that if he'd had the chance, he wouldn't have thought twice about bumping Earnhardt out of the way if it meant he could have locked-down that Chase transfer spot.
"I would have moved him for sure," Gordon stated unequivocally. "There's no doubt in my mind. Everybody who is out there racing has to weigh risk versus reward. For me, to win this race, it's worth taking a lot of risk, even if you upset your team mate.
"I think everybody out there that's not in the Chase understands that if that guy can win that race and put himself in Homestead for the championship, you can pretty much guarantee that you're going to get the bumper or get slammed or something," he added.
"[But] Dale drove a nice, clean race. I never had an opportunity. Even prior to that, I didn't really have the car to run him down. We just lost the drive off there on that run. We were still a little bit better than him, but not enough to really go up there and run him down.
"We had our opportunities, no doubt about that," said Gordon. "But yeah, it wouldn't matter who it was. Anybody I would have taken big chances and big risks. You can do that here at Martinsville. It's a short track. You can get to people's bumpers. You can out‑brake them, slide up into them. There's a lot of tactics you can use to be aggressive here that can win you the race. You can't do that everywhere, but you can do that here."
Even though Gordon hadn't been able to force the issue at the end, had he been hoping or expecting that Earnhardt might have made way for him at the finish, knowing what was at stake in the championship?
"I don't really know, but I'm not upset about it," he insisted. "You don't expect anybody to do anything. You hope, yeah, sure - you hope ... I would have liked to have had that win, but you don't want to do that because somebody moves over for you.
"I think that I said before, the only way I felt like you can work together as a team is cut somebody some slack a little bit," he continued. "If you're in the outside lane trying to get to the inside lane, you know, just give‑and‑take a little bit I think is the smart thing to do. Not be too aggressive where you take a team mate out that's running for the championship, but at no point did I think it was about not racing hard for wins.
"Dale Jr. saw an opportunity to win, and you can't blame him for giving it everything he had to go get that win. That's awesome for him."
The fact that Earnhardt - who dropped out of the Chase after last week's race at Talladega - won the race means that now at least two of the last four Chase spots at Homestead will be awarded on the basis of championship points. And of course, Gordon himself also still has a chance of securing an early transfer spot if he can win at either Texas or Phoenix in the next two weeks.
"The good news is that a Chase driver did not win the race today," concurred Gordon. "Finishing second isn't as big of a deal today, it's actually really a good finish and good points day compared to if a Chase driver would have won. I wanted to get that win to get ourselves locked in, but we have two more great tracks coming up.
"Anything can happen, that's why you want that win so badly. I like our chances at the next two tracks, they're good tracks for us. Thank God none of them are Talladega!" he laughed. "We got to go race. We got to race hard. We got to be smart and we got to go for it hard. That's the toughest thing about this thing, you got to go for it. You got to put everything out on the edge. If you go too far over the edge, you might be out. There's a very fine line there.
"We go to Texas," he summed up. "We race smart. We work on the details, on the set-ups of the car, to try to make a fast race car, go race to get the best finish we have, hope we get ourselves in the best position to win."
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