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Elimination Station: Whittling Down Title Contenders After Week 1

You can’t win a championship in the first quarter, the first round, or the first pitch. But you can certainly lose it, with a mental error or physical deficit making a comeback so impossible even _Rudy_ would step off the field and surrender. For the best athletes, their curse in learning to beat the best is knowing exactly when the best is about to beat them. When the white flag nears, they project the strength of “never surrender” but the light of the camera sometimes shows a broken spirit with nasty words they cannot speak.

Or in this case… it was a nasty ‘stache.

Turns out a 1990s flashback, for Jeff Gordon, wasn’t exactly the way to go at Chicagoland. This year’s runner-up Richmond miracle was the biggest name on the Chase chopping block Sunday, a 400-mile race just 125 miles too long for a hard-luck title bid that ended with a hard hit into the SAFER barrier at full speed. Running solidly inside the top 5 when it happened, armed with momentum the driver of the No. 24 Chevy instead chose to relive his rookie year — the last time that facial hair existed, grown for fans in honor of making the postseason. Once again, like in most races in ’93, Gordon had great speed, solid effort, seemingly a contender for victory down the stretch until inexplicably winding up in the wall.

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Sunday’s collision with a SAFER barrier after a stuck throttle led to a disappointing race for Jeff Gordon this weekend at Chicagoland.

“We had a throttle stick,” said the now 41-year-old veteran, admitting the normally unflappable Hendrick Motorsports parts department was, well, human after all. “It didn’t stick wide-open; I just let off the throttle and it just didn’t come all the way back.”

“It [probably stuck] about half-throttle, which is enough to do a lot of damage.”

Try several million dollars worth. In a heartbeat, Gordon dropped 47 points behind new championship leader Brad Keselowski, behind 11 drivers with nine races left in a complicated math problem that doesn’t work out in his favor. Even if Gordon swept the rest of the year, winning all nine races with style, he wouldn’t be able to overcome the deficit if Keselowski ran second and led at least one lap in each.

That leaves Four-Time a longshot, at best, to charge back and challenge for the championship in a year where he’s struggled to be better than fourth-best within his own _organization_. But if there’s any consolation for Gordon this Monday, it’s that he’s not alone. Chicagoland, while short on action, was crystal clear in showcasing which postseason drivers have their act together.

The carnage, once the smoke cleared from Brad Keselowski’s post-burnout en route to Victory Lane, was far more than anyone anticipated – in seven days, a potential list of titlists was cut in half. Yes, I said it; in this year of parity, where the top 25 cars run the same lap speeds almost weekly, six of 12 guys with a Chase bid might as well start working on 2013. Consider…

*Matt Kenseth,* whose team turns to rookie Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. in 2013, broke a shock, leaving the No. 17 Ford struggling just to finish 18th. But that’s a good match for their broken chemistry, moments after the race when Kenseth promptly threw them under the bus on national television. Calling the weekend a “nightmare” and claiming the crew “wasn’t ready” for a practice session during the weekend, a driver broke a sacred code (shortly after berating them on the radio during the race). Just like that, a team that’s about to divorce has even less to fight for.

Could *Kevin Harvick* follow suit in the mental breakdown category? The driver of RCR’s No. 29 Chevrolet ran like molasses on a type of track that makes up exactly half of this year’s Chase. A top-5 result at Atlanta, a brief sign of hope, seems like light years away already this month; instead, when all other rivals stepped up their game, Harvick was left stepping into their dust (12th). Cough, cough, 2013 it is.

Ditto for *Martin Truex, Jr.,* in his first Chase since ’07, who had to beg, plead, and play his cards just right to climb up into 10th place. There’s *Greg Biffle,* a top-10 car most of the day, who sat helpless while his pit crew adjusted him backwards to 13th. And last but not least, rounding out the field of discontent, is none other than *Dale Earnhardt, Jr.* Starting the day out back, the victim of an engine change, the No. 88 could only overcome so much ugly track position, a climb that ended at eighth.

All the drivers mentioned are 17 or more points back already, with the luxury of nine races left, but the difficulty of seeing their rivals in position to pull away. Up next is Loudon, where point leader Keselowski was fifth in July – in fact, five of the six drivers still “in contention” finished inside the top 7 that day. The one who didn’t? Tony Stewart, who ran 12th and is the defending champion of the race last Fall. With mechanical failure non-existent in a 300-mile race, it’s safe to say at least one of those drivers will win convincingly, keeping the deficit largely intact.

Even more daunting is the next stop on the schedule, Dover, which should simply be renamed “the Johnson mile.” Leading 289 laps this Spring, the No. 48 has made Dover a second home and enters that race an overwhelming favorite to pull off a sweep. What does it mean? Three races in, 30% through the postseason, the deficits these drivers face will likely double, if not triple, with no way to stop it. Their only hope already would lie in a Talladega Demolition Derby, the Chase field eliminated, with a victory the only true way to get back in the race.

But 98% of all eventual champions don’t have to hope for miracles after Round 1. Just ask Gordon, who’s been there, done that – and knows the truth.

“In this deal,” he said. “You can’t afford to have issues like [a broken throttle].”

It leads to a broken championship heart.

*Connect with Tom!*
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