When Jeff Gordon suffered a stuck throttle, causing him to crash out of NASCAR's opening Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway, most observers believed the four-time champion had eliminated himself from title contention.
Gordon responded with a pair of top-five finishes at New Hampshire and Dover and has lost just one point to the leaders during that span. He's even climbed out of the cellar, jumping to 10th place, 48 points behind leader Brad Keselowski.
But there's still a long way to the top. So for Gordon, Talladega represents the ultimate opportunity to climb back into the championship picture – and he could do so with a win on Sunday afternoon.
The key, Gordon said Friday, is aggression. He expects to qualify out front and stay there, too – no dropping back to the rear of the field for most of the race.
"(The championship leaders) are thinking, 'We can't afford to get caught up in the big one,'" Gordon said. "And I'm sitting here thinking, 'I can't afford not to be leading laps, running up front and to not win this race.'"
Gordon admitted he studied the last few plate races at both Daytona and Talladega, but doesn't feel as though it helped his approach from a competitive standpoint. He was fast in practice but mostly focused on cooling his gauges in the middle of a pack, a problem that's plagued the team since the season-opening Daytona 500.
"We're going to be more aggressive when it comes to the temperatures we run, but we also know what happened to us at Daytona," Gordon said. "That was more from a failure, so we're going to push the limits this weekend. We've seen other teams do it and get to the finish."
Despite the challenges, Gordon is excited about Sunday's race – the first time he's felt that way about a plate race in a long time.
"For us, it's not racing for points, it's about racing for the win and being aggressive," he said. "... I'm excited that we can come in here and not be looking at taking a conservative approach. I think that can get you in just as much trouble as being aggressive."
Gordon used a similar approach to make the Chase in the first place, climbing back from as far as 24th in the standings after the 12th race of the season, ultimately erasing a 12-point deficit at Richmond to bump Kyle Busch from the playoffs.
Gordon's newfound excitement and aggression could land him in Victory Lane. And with a little luck, it could land him right back into championship contention.