The Frontstretch: Why Johnson + Gordon = Uh-Oh: Teams Have Enough Trouble w/o Making Their Own by Amy Henderson -- Tuesday April 20, 2010

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Why Johnson + Gordon = Uh-Oh: Teams Have Enough Trouble w/o Making Their Own

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Tuesday April 20, 2010


It was as uncharacteristic as thunder straight out of a sunny sky. And, like a bolt from the blue that harmlessly strikes a lightning rod instead of causing an inferno, it could have been so much worse.

The fact that it wasn’t worse was blind luck, really. And the most worrisome part about it is the two cars in the eye of the squall weren’t rivals, but teammates – cars that should be working together and not tangling, both of them championship contenders. The duo averted disaster, but at least one of them was surely left wondering how dear the cost really was.

These teammates race each other as aggressively, if not more so, as anyone else on the racetrack. That’s how it should be: team orders should be left for holding up lapped traffic and the like… but there is a line. Really, there’s enough to worry about without starting an in-house spat.

And in this case, should the resentment simmer, it could have championship implications later.

It was both commonplace and a rarity, a study in contrasts. Jeff Gordon has long been known for a slightly aggressive style. He won’t put you in the wall very often, but if he’s fast and there’s real estate to be had, he has never shied away from moving a car with his bumper for position. So when teammate and one-time protégé Jimmie Johnson was bumped up the track to take over second place on lap 241, it wasn’t particularly unusual.

Johnson’s reaction, though, was the bolt out of a blue sky. The reigning four-time champ is one of the cleanest drivers in the sport, and to see him slam into the side of Gordon’s car was almost enough to cause a double take. There was never intent to wreck Gordon, but it certainly looked as if the No. 48, usually so smooth through the corners, turned down into Gordon’s No. 24 in a move that got everyone’s heart rising. It’s not that Gordon was giving Johnson an inch of space, but it doesn’t look as though Gordon drifted so high that he and Johnson couldn’t have avoided each other. It looked as if Johnson didn’t want to avoid him.

And that moment’s loss of composure cost Johnson track position – positions which he couldn’t regain, having to settle instead for second. That’s not a position he has had to settle for all that often, and for the last four years, it’s a position others, including Gordon twice, have had to get used to in the final standings. But that’s exactly what Johnson had to do after the incident.

While the damage was minimal, Johnson was forced to pit for the tire rub caused by the contact. He would cycle back to the lead briefly, only to lose it to Gordon, who had fresher tires by virtue of staying on pit sequence. Fighting from behind the rest of the day, Johnson wouldn’t see the top spot again. Was Johnson a lock to win the race before his temper got the better of him? No, he wasn’t. But in the closing laps, had the fastest car; if there was one more corner, he would probably have won the whole thing. Unfortunately, it was Johnson who had to do what no driver wants to ever have to do to put him in that spot – lose track position to prove a point. In the end, he had nobody to blame but himself.

Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have a long history of racing clean on the Cup circuit, but they haven’t been immune to tiffs in the past… or this Monday.

Gordon, as it turns out, didn’t lose because of the contact with Johnson, but because of a later incident with Tony Stewart that damaged 14 cars, all of them on the lead lap. On his team radio after making contact with Johnson, though, Gordon voiced his frustration with the younger driver, snipping, “Oh, Mr. Four-time’s upset?” – a comment that turns around words Johnson had spoken after an incident a year or two ago, one where he was frustrated with Gordon’s lack of patience. But does it indicate a deeper issue?

Johnson says no. “It’s going to happen in racing,” he said after the race was over. “Doesn’t matter if it’s teammates or not. There are just times where you’re irritated by racing with other guys. You know, Jeff and I have been racing hard against each other for wins for a long time. We’ve had this issue in the past, so I really don’t see it being a big deal. I guess he got out and said he was disappointed. So since I have my chance, I can equally say I was pretty disappointed with him today. We’ll sit down and get it talked out.”

“In general, we’ve been through this before… so don’t get the headline writers out saying trouble at HMS, because it’s really no big deal. And we all know from scanning during the race, there are a lot of colorful things said on that racetrack about teammates and other drivers and all that kind of stuff. So to have the word disappointed used from Jeff and myself, I don’t think it is a very big deal.”

But, is Johnson protesting too much? Saying it’s no big deal and it not being any kind of deal are not the same thing. If it was really a non-issue, would anyone have to say it was a non-issue?

In a sport where winning gets harder every week, it could be a much bigger deal. Johnson is the defending champion four times over, and everyone, including Gordon, is gunning for him. Denny Hamlin showed his hand at Texas, winning even though he said he was “still not 100% by any means right now. I feel like I’m 60 at best,” after major knee surgery three weeks ago. Hamlin has a driving style similar to Johnson’s -except that his temper has gotten the best of him and perhaps kept him from making a serious title run to date. Hamlin is a threat, and Johnson knows it, admitting that he’s been warily watching the No. 11 since last season – the first time Johnson has admitted that anyone is in his team’s collective head.

Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle also loom large in the points picture, and both are also known for an aggressive style.

Johnson’s calm, clean driving in comparison has been perhaps the most dangerous asset he has. Racers race their competition the way those drivers race them, and Johnson has given no reason for anyone to retaliate; Tony Stewart said at one point that he trusted Johnson more than almost any other driver, and that’s why drivers rarely cross that line with the El Cajon, CA native – he never crosses it with them. That may be Johnson’s hidden advantage, and it’s not one he can afford to lose, especially to a tiff with a teammate.

Face it: in racing, there are plenty of people gunning for you. A driver needs someone to watch his back, and the most logical someone is a teammate (Roger Penske sums it up best with a long-standing team rule: Don’t wreck each other, period.) Whether it’s a drafting partner on a plate track, someone to race hard from a lap down while you open a lead, or just someone you know is going to try not to wreck you, that’s not something to give up over a small bump for second place. For that matter, maybe it’s best not to make that bump for second place with almost 100 laps to go, either.

The message is clear: the last thing any driver needs is trouble with a teammate, so Johnson better fix this problem with Gordon ASAP. There’s enough trouble lurking outside the home shop… and like a bolt from the blue, it’s bound to strike.

Contact Amy Henderson

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04/20/2010 06:59 AM

Haters of Jimmie Johnson must agree that he was anything BUT “Vanilla” on Monday. And those last 17 laps he races for the win – not points as he’s so often accused of. (Although to me, it’s the same thing. Win=Points and Points=Championship)

04/20/2010 07:52 AM

VABlueGrass, those last 17 laps also said one other very important statement. The 2010 Championship is officially over! Jimmie has won his fifth, albiet underserved, championship in a row! There is no competition from any other team. No other driver currently racing in the Cup series has any capability to beat the Jimmie/Chad machine. Yes, I hate Jimmie with a passion! Nothing would make me smile more than to see that sleezy, slimy jerk slammed hard into the wall on lap 1, but that will never happen. The felon has more money that probably Childress, Gibbs, Roush, and all the other team owners combined, and he spends it well, including, and this is my personal suspicion, the lining of Brian France’s pockets to make sure his inspectors now look the other way when it comes to the inspection of Chad’s creations. Yes, this is once again Jimmie’s year! Even I concede that! I used to be a staunch Matt kenseth But even I have to finally admit that he is washed up and finished. As for the rest of the 2010 season, it will be interesting to see how the Jimmie and Chad domination plays out with race attendance and viewing. Bet it kills it! And I hope people like DansMom enjoy watching, because, as I’ve been doing for the last three years, I turn off the TV at the first mention of either of their names. And I’m sure there are lots of others who do the same. NASCAR is dead!!

04/20/2010 08:15 AM

Oh i can’t wait for those two manly men to get into it after the race . Screaming , hair pulling , scratching , and windmill swings at each other . That would be a show .

Bill B
04/20/2010 08:49 AM

“So when teammate and one-time protégé Jimmie Johnson was bumped up the track to take over second place on lap 241, it wasn’t particularly unusual.”
Did Gordon actually bump him? I watched it several times and I didn’t think they ever touched.

04/20/2010 09:35 AM

Sweet. Now that Paul is out, there is one less guy I have to wait behind in line to get to the bathroom at the races!

Carl D.
04/20/2010 10:51 AM


That’s the spirit! And maybe if Jimmie keeps winning, eventually there won’t even be a line and you’ll have the whole bathroom to yourself!

04/20/2010 10:55 AM

Volcano – nice!

Paul – you must not have watched the whole race. Or you would have seen that the 24 was dominant the whole day – and if he runs like that he’ll give Jimmie a run for his money.

Jeff Burton showed he could climb from the back of the pack to the lead. Did it twice.

And if you listen to Denny Hamlin talk, he’s got something in store for the 48 team and proved it yesterday.

Personally, I’m baffled at how once again Mark Martin turned an absolutely AWFUL day into a great points finish. THAT is the stuff thats going to make him tough come chase time.

I think there is a lot of drama in the points race this year. Afterall, like a race you can’t win on lap 8, you can’t win the championship after the 8th race of the year!

04/20/2010 10:57 AM

Sorry, but for all you blind people, Jeff never touched Jimmie…he just got him loose, and made the pass! A great move on his part, with a car that was by far the best out there!!! Idiotic moronic asinine nascrap-killing jimmie was just mad cuz he didn’t have the dominant car once again! He was just being the spoiled brat baby that he is!!…And anyone who says idiotic moronic cheating nascrap- killing jimmie is a clean driver…well…you’re a moronic idiot too!…cuz idiotic moronic cheating nascrap-killing jimmie is one of the dirtiest drivers out there!!!! I’m continually amazed at how blind people are!!!!

04/20/2010 10:58 AM

Volcano- You use the bathroom at NASCAR races? Just wear a bathing suit, you’ll miss less action that way!

04/20/2010 11:15 AM

Carl: A whole bathroom to myself?! It’s like a dream come true. I could convert the troughs on the walls into some elaborate beer fountain system.

GrassyKnoll: What if you need to go #2?

04/20/2010 12:09 PM

Hit him again jeff. Forget this friendship bs. For too long he’s been taken advantage of you. There are no friends on the race track. As far as jimmy being mr clean on the racetrack, what a joke.

04/20/2010 12:22 PM

Volcano, If this season does go the way Paul said, you will have the bathroom all to yourself and DansMom’s male friends. I was at Bristol and I was totally shocked that at a track that holds, what 160,000, and those stands were only about three-quarters full. And I’m being generous. But when that phony caution came out with 13 laps to go, those stands emptied. Why? Everyone knew that NASCAR threw that caution to give their precious Jimmie boy a chance to get passed Kurt Busch. Kurt had the field covered, and with Jimmie-poo not able to catch up, ol Ricky got hold of his “ buddy” Brian, and viola, a fake caution! Jimmie and Kurt both take four, but lo-and-behold, Jimmie is able to get by with a little help from his teammate Tony holding Kurt up and Jimmie goes to Victory lane. What surprized me most about yesterday is that NASCAR didn’t throw another fake caution with two- or three to go to give Jimmie the race again! Ricky must have not been able to reach Brian, who was maybe preoccupied with something else. Bet Brian is getting an earfull from Rick today!

04/20/2010 12:29 PM

That right there is why I love conspiracy theorists… when the conspiracy doesn’t come true they assume something must have gone wrong.

Do you know how complicated a scheme it would be to pull off the story you just told. Someone has seen ocean’s 13 a few too many times.


04/20/2010 01:07 PM


I am assuming this means you are Not a fan of Jimmie Johnson, I could be wrong but I don’t think so.

04/20/2010 01:20 PM

If Jimmie Johnson’s dominance is killing NASCAR, then how did the NASCAR popularity occur at a time when Jeff Gordon was winning all the races?

Volcano – don’t eat the martinsville hot dogs and you’ll be ok. Just drink beer. But not too much or you’ll “volcano” all over yourself (and someone’s couch – if you don’t do that outside) after the race.

04/20/2010 01:35 PM

My favorites are races where Jimmie Johnson leads lap #3. A tribute to the real champion he is.

Don Mei
04/20/2010 01:44 PM

Jeez, lighten up will you all? especially Paul! Its only a stupid car race!!!

Jeff's Fan
04/20/2010 02:57 PM

“Johnson the cleanest driver in NASCAR”, huh? I don’t think so. Mr. Vanilla has had so many people pull over out of his way and with the stupid chase giving him 4 trophies, he thinks he’s god’s gift to racing.

Poor baby, he was losing to a better car yesterday, so instead of being a man about it, he tried to wreck the guy who helped him get his ride. Real smooth. Well, Jeff may only disappointed with Johnson, but I was glad to see Gordon have a good enough car to be able to drive up past other cars. It was an awesome sight. It’s a shame that Edwards and Stewart caused the best car on the track to lose the race. It would have been fun to see the 24 and 48 go head to head for the win.

04/20/2010 09:27 PM

Po, Po, JJ.
As a “car owner”, Gordon has enough money. He should have just taken him out. Then maybe there would be a real rivalry.
It’s not that JJ has been a dirty driver, he just can’t handle anybody racing him and can’t handle the pressure when they do. Kinda like “The Great” Michael Schumacher.

Adam Waller
04/21/2010 08:43 AM

At least Dale Sr had the right idea to kill himself to protect his legacy before his career was washed up.


Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

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