Full Throttle · Mike Neff · Thursday October 12, 2006
Last Sunday at Talladega, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. pushed Jeff Gordon to the lead in the UAW-Ford 500. That wasn't the first time Earnhardt has helped Gordon get to the front, but it very well may be his last. After Gordon was taken out of the race by someone else's mistake in the race’s semi-annual “Big One,” he was quick to rake Earnhardt, Jr. over the coals for what Gordon considered excessive bump drafting. When Junior found out, he made the observation that Gordon doesn't mind when he benefits from people's assistance, as long as it suits him; Junior claimed Gordon never seems to repay on-track favors, saying he complains instead when things do not fall into place exactly as Gordon would like to see them. After doing an extensive investigation into Jeff Gordon’s recent past, one thing does appear to ring true…Junior, for all intents and purposes, was absolutely right.
To validate Junior’s claims of not enough respect for the Chasers, people need to only look back a few weeks to Gordon's tirade against Brian Vickers at New Hampshire. During that race, Gordon complained after the event that Vickers raced too hard and should have moved over to let him, a Chase contender, go past so he could gain position easily. Forget about the team commitments that the No. 25 team and Vickers has with their sponsors, and don't worry about the integrity of the sport; in Gordon’s mind, he felt it necessary for his teammate to just let him by.
That’s not the first time the Rainbow Warrior has “demanded” more than the usual share of respect. Look at Bristol this Spring. Gordon spun on the last lap of the race and felt that he was moved by Matt Kenseth in order for that spin to occur. As a result, he showed his displeasure with a forearm shiver on pit road after the race was over. At the time, Kenseth was coming to apologize; but Gordon wanted nothing to do with it. Once again, Gordon forgot about moving Rusty Wallace out of the way more than once at Bristol with a very similar maneuver; if you’ve done something to another driver in the past, wouldn’t you be sympathetic when the same tactic gets applied to you? Gordon didn't forget the move, though, and made sure to exact his revenge at Chicago. With the race winding down, Gordon dumped Kenseth coming off of the second turn and, while not admitting it was on purpose, certainly made it seem as though he was out to prove he could drive aggressively.
That litany of hypocrisy goes on and on for the No. 24 team. It seems as though whenever the day doesn't work out for Gordon, it is always someone else's fault. It doesn’t matter whether it’s another driver, or his team, or simply the NASCAR officials. Drivers who have not won a Championship should simply bow down and move over out of respect for Gordon’s vast accomplishments. If someone is a former Champion or multi-race winner, then they obviously didn't realize what they were doing, and were driving over their heads when Gordon was clearly a better race car that needed to pass by them…no matter what the cost.
Now, Jeff Gordon is a great stock car driver. He will pass Dale Earnhardt's career win total in the very near future, and he'll probably go down as the No. 3 all-time win leader when he finally hangs up the helmet, barring some unforeseen dramatic drop in performance by Hendrick Motorsports. Unfortunately, though, it seems as though Gordon has taken his new role as a future Hall of Famer to heart. His whining seems to have gone to a whole new level; there is always someone or something to blame rather than just racing luck, because he thinks he’s shown the talent to get him up front on a weekly basis.
Ironically, it was Gordon’s main rival in popularity, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who took the high road on Sunday. When Earnhardt was crashed out of a certain top three finish and a huge points day, he was calm and almost complimentary of winner Brian Vickers for the move that cost him so dearly. Earnhardt, Jr., despite losing over 20 spots in that last lap crash, was quick to say that not only should points not be taken away from Vickers, but there should be no other punishment handed down, either. Clearly, a message had been sent: Talladega was just a racing deal.
Last year, Earnhardt took Vickers out at California with a bonehead move, and took full responsibility from the moment someone asked him about it. He acknowledged he put his car in a place he should not have, way too early in the race. While the fan response was sympathetic, the end result was disastrous : two torn up race cars.
Did Junior bump draft in zones that are considered "no bump" areas on the track? The video certainly seemed to indicate it. Did he hit anyone in a fashion that caused them to lose control of their car, though? He did not. Did Earnhardt help Gordon get to the lead of the race Sunday? He did. Did Gordon push Earnhardt to the front of the pack in return? He did not.
In today's sterilized, corporate, politically correct racing world, a genuine rivalry is something that this sport could dearly use. To have that rivalry develop between the top two most popular drivers in the sport would be enormous. If Gordon vs. Earnhardt turns into something similar to the old Earnhardt vs. Bodine, Waltrip vs. the World, or Petty vs. Pearson battles, we could be looking at a popularity increase that no one imagined possible at this point in NASCAR's growth. Do I like Jeff Gordon's methods of airing his dirty laundry? Not really. But does it look like it may stir up a feud with the sports most popular driver? Absolutely. At least this time around, I know the networks and NASCAR are sure hoping so, too.
That’s good…because I wouldn’t want it any other way.
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