There's no question that the third round of the new-format Chase has been incredibly cruel to four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who came so close in all three races at Martinsville, Texas and now Phoenix only to walk away empty handed and out of the running for this year's title.
At Martinsville he was pipped to the win by his Hendrick Motorsports team mate Dale Earnhardt, denying him what would have been an automatic transfer to the title deciding season finale next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The full consequences of that result was made painfully clear the following week, when Gordon - again running in second place - was spun out by contact with Brad Keselowski at the penultimate restart.
The ultimate cost of Gordon's poor final result at Texas meant that even second place behind Kevin Harvick at Phoenix was not enough to ensure him a place in the final four that will compete for the championship in next week's winner-take-all race. It all depended on whether Ryan Newman could finish high enough to beat him in the points and with a final lap, final corner pass on Kyle Larson Newman managed to achieve just that, knocking Gordon out by a single point.
"We come home second, and I just was hoping that it was going to be enough," Gordon said after the race. "When you hear those words that it wasn't, it's disappointing.
"It's tough to swallow that two second-place finishes and staring down a potential win or at least top five last week that we didn't get it done," he admitted. "To perform as well as we did in this round - and I was looking forward to this round for a long time, you know, ever since they announced this Chase, and we started having a good year - I was looking forward to hopefully being in this round because I felt like this was a round where we could really shine, and we did. But it still wasn't enough.
"I'm really proud of the effort, not just today but throughout this whole season and the Chase," he continued. "I couldn't be more proud of this team and the effort that they put out.
"Kevin was in another zip code," he admitted, ruling any any hope that he could have beaten the Stewart-Haas Racing driver to secure himself a seat at Homestead. "There was no touching him. But to come out of here second, I really thought second would get it done, but obviously it didn't.
"We did everything that we could, other than have a faster race car than Kevin. That was near impossible. But yeah, it's disappointing. It makes last week that much even tougher to swallow, but that's all right, we put in a great effort at Martinsville, great effort here, and it just wasn't enough."
Gordon said he didn't blame Newman for the way he'd bumped his way past Larson to secure himself a spot in the final race of the Chase: "Newman just told me that that apron was really slick, like there was some oil down there or something.
"It was acceptable last week, it's acceptable this week," he shrugged. "I mean, don't think that that's not going to come back to you, you know. I mean, I could have taken out Harvick, too, to make it in, but I didn't."
Gordon said that he had preferred to run the race without knowing what the situation with the point was, which had freed him up to simply go for the best possible result he could get rather than play the odds.
"I didn't want them to tell me points and what was going on behind me," he revealed. "I saw a lot going on, but you can't go halfway through the race and have them go, okay, you're good, you're this many to the good. That's just a false sense of hope.
"You really just have to work and put your best effort out there every single lap and get the best finish you can and hope when it's all said and done that it's enough."
Although he's won four Cup championships, the last was back in 2001 which means he's never been successful in the Chase era that has been dominated by his Hendrick team mate Jimmie Johnson. This year's changes to the play-off format have allowed him to get closer to the title - even further into the competition than Johnson, who was eliminated three weeks ago at Talladega - and overall Gordon remains a fan of the new format.
"I feel like the only disappointing thing or the only thing I don't like right now is the fact that I'm not in it next week!" he laughed. "I think it's incredibly intense. This is the most interest we've had in this sport in a long time, so obviously it's been good."
As for who he thought would win the title now that he was no longer in the running, Gordon had little doubt in nominating the man who had beaten him to the line this weekend at Phoenix.
"I like Harvick. Yeah, I think Harvick looks really good," he said, before adding a side bet on Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin who goes into the title decider as top seed according to the points. "I mean, Denny - the guy has led the most laps all year long, guys. It's not me that's saying this. I do think that Denny won that race last year, so he can be really, really strong there.
"But Kevin looked good there [at Homestead] in the test, and man, they've just been so strong lately, and it seems like they've gotten some of the bugs worked out in their team that they had early in the year, and I think if they do that next week, they're going to be really tough to beat like they were today."
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