After last weekend's controversial events in Texas, Jeff Gordon's hopes of staying in the Chase all the way to next weekend's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway certainly took a dent - but at the same time, he's by no means out of the running.
"It is not going to be easy," said Gordon about his prospects of emerging from this week's race at Phoenix International Raceway with a seat at the table for the winner-take-all title decider. "This team doesn't seem to like to do anything the easy way, but we are certainly highly motivated and excited about our chances. Nobody is better at being able to finish out a race weekend like our guys. I'm looking forward to it.
That said, Gordon admitted that he wasn't feeling a 100 percent this week: "I was kind of fighting a sinus infection last week and it has just kind of continued and lingered on," he revealed.
Gordon was speaking with the media after putting the #24 into seventh place on the grid for Sunday's Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500, the penultimate race of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. It's the first time he's met with journalists since the end of the race in Texas, meaning there were as many questions about last week's race as there were about this week's, or about his Chase prospects. The four-time Cup champion admitted that he'd been going over the events of last week to see what could have been done differently
"I look at every situation at what I could do to do a better job no matter if we won the race," he said. "I looked to see what we could do better. I would have like to have gotten a better restart, no doubt about that. The thing is Brad did an excellent job on that restart getting behind Jimmie [Johnson] and pushing him and getting that run.
"I spun the tyres a little bit, but not really that bad. I didn't get a terrible restart, but because I didn't have somebody pushing me, our line didn't go as good as that inside lane," he recalled. "In that situation, Jimmie is hedging to make sure that Brad didn't take him three wide on the inside, so that gap kind of opened up because my focus is on getting a good run through the top of 1 and 2 and trying to get by a Jimmie like I did the run before that. Never imagined somebody would actually think that is a realistic move to do that.
"Was there a big enough gap? Yes, for a very split second. Do I think it was worth doing that? No. I wouldn't have done that because I think I would have known what the result was going to be which is pretty much what they were."
Gordon suffered a cut tyre from the contact from Keselowski's attempt to barge his way through the rapidly closing gap and the #24 consequently spun out, leading to a heated confrontation on pit lane at Texas Motor Speedway between the two drivers that then spilled over to their respective pit crews. Four Hendrick Motorsports crew members were heavily fined and suspended for throwing actions, something that Gordon said that he deeply regretted.
"Those pit crew guys were kind of in the middle of that," he explained. "The thing that I feel terrible about is getting my guys involved with it ... I believe 100 percent that they weren't there to fight. They weren't there to go after a driver. They were there to make sure I was safe. That is the only regret I have is that it got them involved and got them in this situation to be suspended.
"There is nothing wrong with crew members being out there. But I think what their role is in that kind of situation is in that kind of situation is just back off, and let the drivers handle it. Let them handle that situation. Not to get involved.
"It escalated because Brad didn't want to face the situation," Gordon added. "I feel like if we could have just had a face-to-face there would have been no incident."
The final spark igniting the incident had been Kevin Harvick pushing Keselowski back into the mêlée towards Gordon, which Gordon only realised afterwards when watching the videos of the brawl.
"Kevin played a role, there is no doubt about that," agreed Gordon. "I didn't realize who it was at the time. I thought it was him, but it wasn't until I went back and saw it later on video and got a good chuckle out of that one that I realized what had happened. It certainly played a role."
Gordon suggested that if not for the flared 'skirts' used by Penske on the sides of their cars, his tyre might not have been cut and the outcome to the race might have been very different and the brawl avoided altogether.
"Certainly debatable. You don't know - the tailpipes stick out too," he pointed out. "It's possible that the tailpipes may have done it. But it doesn't help that those skirts and the whole fender - everything is being pulled out on the pit stops the way they are. It is definitely getting a little bit out of control. NASCAR is probably looking at it as 'okay, we have two races left. Let's address that next year'. I don't think they are really in a position to address that right now."
If he hadn't spun and ended up classified in 29th position then Gordon likely wouldn't have gone storming off to confront Keselowski.
"If he won the race, I don't cut the tyre, I finished third or fourth, I'm going to be on camera saying, 'That was awesome. Good job,'" he said. "But that's not how it happened. That's not how it went down. And when you make those kinds of choices and decisions, you have to sometimes weigh out the consequences.
"I have no issue with a guy being aggressive and making a bold move," he continued. "But when you don't win the race and you ruin a person's day then there are consequences that you are going to have to deal with. How you handle yourself after that is a part of that.
"To me if you are going to compare to the greats of this sport that have been aggressive over the years, you also have to compare how they handle themselves in those situations afterwards," he added. "The ones that I have had to deal with on that, they know how to not make enemies, they might not have a lot of friends out there, but they also don't have a lot of enemies. If they do they seem to find a way to patch that up fairly quickly."
Obviously Gordon doesn't count Keselowski among their number at this point, and he revealed that the two hadn't spoken or been in contact in the week since the confrontation in Texas.
"I don't believe in the whole texting thing and calling, I like face-to-face," he said. "But there's a period of time that needs to go by before; sometimes you can do face-to-face. But typically, I want it to happen immediately on both sides. And then, if that doesn't occur, then I'd like to wait until the next weekend when I can see them face-to-face. Or, if I run into them somewhere, I don't know. But I'm not one to do the calling and texting. That's just not the way I believe it should be done. I can't speak for what other guys say and do and how they should do it."
In the meantime, Gordon's not going to allow himself to get distracted from the main aim of the weekend by thoughts of revenge.
"I'm not mad about it, I'm ready to move on and focus on Phoenix," he insisted. "I race people the way they race me. If I am in a situation that I feel like I can make a bold move that I think is going to help me win the race and he stands in the way then I'm going to do the same thing that he did to me last week. The difference is if the same results happen how I'm going to deal with it afterwards and face him on that.
"My goal is to make sure that we have the fastest race car that we possibly can in qualifying, practice and the race. To go out there and win this race, that is our goal," he emphasised. "I can't think about what may happen, what might not happen, how I'm going to approach each restart and all that stuff. You just don't know. But, I also know that the way I have raced over the years have gotten me here is that balance between aggressiveness and patience's and feeling like when it is worth taking the risk and when it's not worth it."
Literally anyone can still make it into the final four line-up for the title decider. In Gordon's case, winning the race outright or else finishing in the top three in the points (he's currently in fourth) will do it and give him his best chance of winning a Cup championship since his last triumph back in 2001.