- David Newton, ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter
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AVONDALE, Ariz. -- William Gordon slipped onto pit road to take a picture of his daughter-in-law, Ingrid Vandebosch, who was sitting atop the pit box of husband Jeff Gordon. A crew member of the No. 24 team stopped to exchange a handshake and hug with a member of the crew standing between his driver and a fifth championship.
Everybody was smiling.
The mood was upbeat.
Four hours later, blank stares encompassed Gordon's crew as they loaded his car into the hauler. The 10th-place finish at Phoenix International Raceway may have tied a Nextel Cup record for top-10s in a season (29), but it left the four-time champion 86 points behind teammate Jimmie Johnson with one race remaining.
The realization was setting in that, barring a mechanical failure or accident by Johnson next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the Chase for the Nextel Cup is over.
"It's over," Gordon said, sounding as close to a candidate conceding an election as possible. "Even if we win it, it's because they had problems. And while we'll accept it, we don't want to do it that way."
Disappointment dripped from Gordon's mouth the way excitement oozed from Johnson's as he celebrated a fourth straight win.
"Man, I'll tell you, those guys are on an unbelievable roll," Gordon said. "Whatever they've got, we're missing. We know everything they've got, but man, we're just not hitting on it.
"And it's unfortunate. I thought this was our year to get another [championship], but we're just coming up short here at the crucial time. Those guys have just knocked it out of the ballpark."
Nobody knows that feeling of being on a roll better than Gordon. The last time a driver won four consecutive races and reached double digits in victories in a season (Johnson currently has 10) was in 1998, when Gordon won 13 en route to his third title.
"It's like everything's easy," Gordon said. "It's like you're not even working. When your car is working good and track position is there and pit stops are working, it's like you can drive it with one finger."
Gordon seemingly needed four hands and two feet to drive his car Sunday. No matter what adjustments crew chief Steve Letarte made or what line he took on the track, the car never responded the way Johnson's did, even though the teams share everything that goes into the car.
"By myself, I'm mediocre," Gordon said over his radio late in the race. "Put somebody behind me, and I'm completely sideways."
A lot of it comes down to driving styles.
"I know what's under their car, and I always shake my head," Gordon said. "I don't see how they make that work. But Jimmie's driving style is just different enough that it does, and they are just flat-out stomping not just us, but everybody, right now.
"I'm just bummed out that we're not getting it done the way I know I'm capable of."
In almost any other year, Gordon would be driving well enough to cruise to the title. He had more than a 400-point lead before the 12 drivers in the Chase were re-positioned based on 10 bonus points given for each win during the first 26 races.
That gave Johnson a 20-point lead because he had two more wins -- six to four -- than his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.
Gordon wiped that out with wins at Talladega and Charlotte for a 68-point lead with six races left in the 10-race shootout. He figured top-10s the rest of the way would be enough to win his first title under the Chase format.
Then Johnson went on a tear like nobody had seen since Gordon won at Pocono, Indianapolis, Watkins Glen and Michigan midway through the '98 season.
"Those guys have flat-out killed everybody," Gordon said. "You've got to give credit where credit's due. We didn't step up and win the races when we needed to. We gave them a run for awhile, and now we've got to figure out how to get the best finish we can at Homestead and end this season off on a positive note going into the offseason."
Gordon did everything he could to make this interesting. He qualified third and held that position as long as he could. He pitted out of sequence in hopes of getting a lucky break and putting Johnson a lap down.
He raced Johnson side by side for second place from lap 170 to 173.
But it was obvious he never stood a chance.
"The 48 [Johnson] has just been untouchable," Letarte said. "We can finish second to them every week, and still we're getting beat."
I thought it was our year; I really did. But the way things have been going here lately, I don't think it is.
-- Jeff Gordon
One could hear frustration in Letarte's voice. It was the same frustration Gordon showed when Kevin Harvick got into the left front of his car with 56 laps remaining. That caused a tire rub that left a trail of smoke and the threat of a blowout.
"That son of a b---- better stop running into me or I'm going to run into him, that jack---," Gordon shouted over his car radio.
The incident didn't affect the way Gordon's car handled. It was just a way to let off steam.
"You can't touch Kevin Harvick, because if you touch him, he's got a short fuse," Gordon said afterward. "He gets pretty upset. He rubbed on me because I was racing him too hard, I guess. I didn't like it either. So I rubbed back on him, and I thought we were going to all wreck.
"We were going backwards at that time, anyway, and just weren't getting a handle on it."
Even if they get a handle on it next week, it likely won't matter.
"I thought it was our year; I really did," said Gordon, who tied the top-10 record Dale Jarrett set en route to the 1999 title. "But the way things have been going here lately, I don't think it is."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
As hard as it is to believe, despite six victories and nearly 30 top-10 finishes, it's not Jeff Gordon's year. He even says so himself, writes David Newton.