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Gordon says the Chase is now a 'three-man race'

October 14, 2011, Dave Rodman, NASCAR.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- Names Edwards, Harvick and HMS teammate Johnson as the drivers to beat

Jeff Gordon's 647 career Cup Series starts, 85 wins and four championships put him in perfect position to make a tough call and he minced no words Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway when he called the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup no better than a three-man race.

"I think it will be two or three drivers [competing for the championship going into Homestead]," Gordon said. "To me it is Jimmie [Johnson], [Kevin] Harvick and Carl [Edwards]. Somebody else might step in there and surprise us, but the next four or five races are really going to tell.

" If we're mathematically out of it, or when that deal happens we might change our approach -- until then it will stay the same."

--JEFF GORDON

"You look at the guys that I think are the ones to beat for the championship and unless we win the next five races, you can take one of those out. We have some work to do, but we're certainly not giving up on it."

The start of Gordon's Chase has caused him to diminish his own No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team's chances. Gordon had sub-standard runs in the Chase opener at Chicagoland, 24th; and the third race, at Dover, 12th. A decent fourth-place at New Hampshire necessitated a good run last weekend at Kansas. But a broken engine with six laps left relegated him to 34th position and 47 points behind current leader Edwards.

"Obviously the Chase has not gone the way we had hoped," Gordon said. "We realize in order to win the championship, we have to win a bunch of races, and the way we approach that doesn't change. If we're mathematically out of it, or when that deal happens we might change our approach -- until then it will stay the same."

But it's also those first four races that are at the root of why Gordon's all but writing off Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch; who are all within 20 points of Edwards heading into Saturday night's Chase-midpoint race, the Bank of America 500.

"I just look at teams that are strong, consistent and the tracks that are on the schedule -- and what they have shown all year long -- versus what they have shown currently in the Chase," Gordon said of his well-drawn distinction.

Edwards has 15 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes so far, Harvick eight and 16 and Johnson, 13 and 20. Some of the other contenders match some of those stats, but in Gordon's opinion, not the key intangibles. Gordon said there's one element they need to exercise to mount a challenge in 2011.

"They have to step it up in a big way," Gordon said of positions four through eight. I really think that Carl [Edwards] has shown it all year long. He's been hanging tough even though he's had some tough races; he's pulled himself out of it pretty well [and] that shows a championship caliber team. But they're going to have to step up their performance.

"Harvick's strength is consistency. They are consistently in the top-five and top-10. They do not have a lot of big, strong strengths but they do not have a lot of weaknesses, either."

Gordon obviously cited his Hendrick teammate Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet as the biggest threat, but he didn't give them a free pass, saying "the No. 48 has to make sure that they do not make any mistakes.

"Those guys are tough," Gordon said. "They go and dominate like they did last week -- they are obviously coming together at the right time. You do not want to give those guys any kind of momentum, especially at this point in the season. It is going to be really interesting to watch and see how those guys step it up."

And momentum is something a lot of drivers have found this season, but few have been able to maintain. Johnson sees the pool of drivers with a legitimate shot at the title as being a little deeper than just three.

"I think there is going to be more than two or three -- I think it will be in that five or six category to be honest with you," Johnson said. "When I look at the year and how tough it's been for any team to stay hot for a long period of time, I think there is going to be a half-dozen guys that have a shot at it in Homestead."

Gordon accrued 10 top-five finishes, including three wins, in this season's first 26 races. Even though Kansas was the team's third sub-30 finish this season, it was a definite low point, considering what was at stake. But Gordon said his group wasn't dwelling on it.

"You don't let it linger long," Gordon said. "We've already moved on from that. We're here in Charlotte, just focused on this race; it doesn't matter if we won that race in Kansas or if we had the disappointing finish that we did have. You have to start focusing on the next race and we've already done that.

"You learn from it, you try to grow from it, you go to the next race and try to be even better."

Gordon echoed team owner Rick Hendrick's resolution from a week ago as Gordon also supported the Hendrick engine department. As Hendrick predicted, Gordon's engine failure was diagnosed.

"We scuffed a piston in the number one cylinder," Gordon said. "It is always concerning when [failures] happen. We saw some things at Kansas earlier in the year and it seems to be a little more related to that track -- the throttle trace and the demand on the engines."

As much as Gordon detailed the tire difference between 1.5-mile tracks dictating his performance level, he also dismissed last week's failure as not being an issue at Charlotte.

"[We're] not as concerned about it here," Gordon said. "And I know I have the best engine shop in the world to address it, they can react fast and we feel good from here on out."

Gordon's past two Charlotte runs have been 23rd in this race last season and 20th in the Coca-Cola 600. But before that, he had five top-eight finishes in his previous six starts. Not surprisingly, Gordon said last week's downer has little relevance to this weekend.

"Nothing changes right now," Gordon said. "Nothing changed for us. We go to the race track to win -- that is what we have been doing every weekend."

* Watch: Gordon's 2011 Chase Highlights

Gordon emphasized that he has no regrets about this season, which proved once again his team has the potential to contend for the championship.

"Listen, this has been a great year no matter what happens," Gordon said. "We were extremely excited about coming into this Chase with the momentum that we had as a team and just the wins that we have had and the great things that are happening to this team.

"Even the great run that we had going in Kansas, prior to the problem on the re-start and the engine trouble, was something that we had been doing a lot of this year. It's a lot of fun to do that [and] to fall back this far in the points is very disappointing."

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