-- Jeff Gordon tried to mask his emotions behind dark sunglasses and a hat he had pulled down over his graying sideburns. But the tension on the four-time NASCAR Cup champion's face was apparent, the apprehension in his voice obvious.
"It's going to come down to us putting down the best race of the season, the best race of our careers, really," Gordon said outside of his team's hauler Friday afternoon. "It's a lot of pressure."
Whether Gordon qualifies for "the Chase for the Cup" -- the playoff system NASCAR adopted last season to spice up the series's stretch run -- will be determined Saturday on Richmond International Raceway's treacherous 3/4-mile oval. Gordon, stock-car racing's most recognizable driver, will begin the evening 12th in the points standings, then gets 400 laps to make up two spots. Only the drivers who rank among the top 10 are eligible to win the Nextel Cup, and Richmond represents the cutoff point.
"I hope that when we come out of [Richmond] we can hold our heads up high and say, 'Hey, we did everything we could,' regardless of the results," Gordon said. "All we can do is give it everything we got, and at the end of the day, see where the other guys finish."
Gordon's challenge Saturday will be considerable, not to mention complicated. He must leapfrog both Ryan Newman, who is 11th, and Jamie McMurray, who is 10th.
Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin have already clinched a spot in the Chase; Kurt Busch gets in by starting the race; Jeremy Mayfield needs only to finish 39th to qualify.
That leaves 10 drivers, including Gordon, battling for essentially three positions.
Adding intrigue to Gordon's situation Friday was news that his crew chief, Robbie Loomis, has considered leaving the team for personal reasons at season's end. Loomis has been with Gordon for five years.
"I think it's a good time for me to reprioritize my personal life and get things figured out there," Loomis said. "In life, for years, I've had racing, God and family. I'm trying to get it God, family then racing."
But for now, Loomis said, his only goal is to get Gordon's car into the Chase.
Two weeks ago at Bristol, Gordon, 34, moved into 10th in the points standings after a sixth-place finish. But his hold on the final spot proved to be tenuous. An ill-handling car hampered Gordon last Sunday in California, where he wound up 21st, a finish he called "pathetic."
Gordon's predicament wasn't fathomable in February, back when he won NASCAR's biggest race, the Daytona 500. Or after claiming his third victory of the season at Talladega on May 1, after which it appeared Gordon was speeding toward another sublime season.
But two weeks later, the series made its first visit to Richmond, a track that's as hard on the drivers' psyches as it is on the cars' fenders. Gordon wrecked and finished 39th. A three-month slump ensued. His position in the points declined steadily -- third, ninth, fifteenth.
Failing to secure a spot in the Chase would guarantee Gordon of his first non-top 10 points finish since his first full season (1993), when he was 14th. Some observers say fan interest in the season's final 10 races could wane without Gordon; another favorite, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has already been eliminated from contention.
"This is the cutoff; this is the deadline," Kenseth said. "I haven't really examined the situation, but I know there are some guys we have to finish in front of."
Gordon said he won't concentrate on the race within the race early on. But as the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 wears on, Gordon wants his spotter to tell him precisely where he stands.
Gordon has a good record at Richmond, where he has two career victories (spring 1996 and the fall 2000) and 14 top-10 finishes in 25 career starts there.
Gordon qualified sixth. Kevin Harvick won the pole, and Biffle will start second.
"If we make the Chase, it would be a great story," Gordon said. "It would be a huge weight off our shoulders. It's all going to come down to driving your heart out."