The Frontstretch: Bowles - Eye : Gordon Tired Of Playing Second Fiddle ... Even Though It's His Own Fault by Thomas Bowles -- Sunday April 1, 2007

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Bowles - Eye : Gordon Tired Of Playing Second Fiddle ... Even Though It's His Own Fault

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Sunday April 1, 2007


As darkness fell on Martinsville Speedway, Jeff Gordon walked down pit road like a five-year-old kid who just had his toy car stolen by the local bully. Inches away from his first checkered flag of the season, the phrase "Second place is the first loser" had never felt so real; filled with passion, Gordon found his patience worn thin after watching the win slip right through his fingers. At a track where the Rainbow Warrior has reigned supreme, he instead found himself with the fake smile the Miss America girl has the second she's named the first runner-up. The worst part was, this time there was no Matt Kenseth to push out his frustrations on.

No, on Sunday it was the protégé who had beaten the master at his own game - again - and Jeff Gordon could only blame himself.

As Jimmie Johnson coasted to Victory Lane, Gordon stood watching on the side, the victor turned victim in a scenario that's been played out several times over the past few years. Since the end of 2001, when Gordon recommended a young, promising 26-year-old named Johnson to fill the seat of the No. 48, the man they once called Wonder Boy has begun a slow transformation into Wondering When I Was Number One On The Totem Pole. Gordon's 17 victories during that time span lag far behind Johnson's 26; this season, Gordon's pitching a shutout, while Johnson's already snagged three wins in six starts.

Nowhere is there more evidence that the protégé has indeed one-upped the master than at the track Gordon's turned into his personal playground. The winningest active driver at Martinsville, taking the checkered flag seven times in 29 starts, the No. 24 is expected to dominate every time the series visits the mountains of western Virginia. Instead, it’s the No. 48 and Johnson that have now won two in a row at this facility; despite Gordon's best efforts to hit the No. 48 so hard he'd reach the rear wing in the final laps, Johnson held onto a lead he knew his teammate (and co-owner) wanted oh so badly.

"Hard racing, and as Jeff may have said, I don't know how he could have hit me much harder," said Johnson afterwards. "The way these bumpers line up, I just literally put my head up against the headrest, and just waited for (Gordon’s bumps) because they were coming, and they were coming really hard. To race in a battle like that with Jeff Gordon, it was something that was really cool and I will always look back on."

Judging by Gordon's post-race comments, though, it was clear the point leader wasn't so touchy-feely about having a battle for the ages where he pulled the short end of the stick.

"He was driving extremely hard and aggressive as he should have, and it was making it pretty difficult for me," Gordon said about Johnson's late race driving techniques. "We had to wait ‘til the end to start roughing him up. I didn't want to wreck him so that's why we're second, not first."

Sound like a case of the bitter pills? Absolutely; but the irony of Johnson's Sunday charge was that the No. 48 car was junk from the time the car unloaded Friday afternoon. After struggling to get the car up to speed - Johnson was 43rd on the speed charts after the second practice, Chad Knaus went asking for help. Stepping up to the plate was a surprising source – the crew chief of a certin DuPont Chevrolet.

"We were able to take the No. 24 car setup (from Steve LeTarte) and put it under our car, and it really switched it on," said Knaus. “It was great."

So great, in fact, that Johnson was able to clean up his act on Sunday, taking advantage of fresh tires to fight his way to the front after a lap 358 rain delay. By the time the No. 24 car got to his back bumper, the Lowe's team had things well under control.

"It's painful," claimed a sympathetic Knaus when asked how the No. 24 team's Good Samaritan Act came back to bite them. "It's going to be painful for Steve, it's going to be painful for Jeff, but when you sit back and look at it and look at the grand scheme of things and what we're trying to accomplish at Hendrick Motorsports, there's nothing better (than sharing information). It's great…but it stings a little bit."

For Gordon, the sting of playing second fiddle through such information sharing has been going on for several years. Finishing behind Jimmie in the standings each of the past four seasons, the championships many thought would pile inside the trophy case have instead been handed out to someone else. Six years after his last title, Gordon finds himself stuck at four and clearly in the second half of his long career; with a family on the horizon and an age closer to 40 than 30, it's clear the clock is ticking faster for him than the man he employs to drive his car.

That’s why it's hard to believe Gordon's going to keep being as forthcoming with information down the road, no matter how hard Mr. Hendrick keeps asking the two teams to cooperate. The regular season is one thing, but with both drivers shaping up to be favorites to win this year's title, the postseason could be a whole other matter altogether. For as far as Gordon is concerned, Jimmie already knows too much.

"I did everything I feel like I could to win the race," Gordon claimed, "And in the future, if the roles are reversed, I'm going to do everything I can to protect the lead."

"Had I hit him any harder and wrecked them, then the blame would have been put on me, and we would have had an issue. Maybe Jeff Burton and I are softies, I don't know."

Well, don't expect softie to play nice in six months. This time around, the master got beat because he left the book open and walked away; don't be surprised to see those chapters erased come Fall. And should Gordon not take that extra step; well, he has no one but himself to blame.

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Beyond the Cockpit: Alexis DeJoria On The 300 mph Women of the NHRA
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©2000 - 2008 Thomas Bowles and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

04/02/2007 07:15 AM

I agree with you in principle. Of course when the heat is on for the chase and cup title…..WRECK YOUR TEAMATE JEFF!!! But what do you think about the front splitter, if a driver hits another car really hard will it damage the splitter????

Robert Eastman
04/02/2007 08:12 AM

The Martinsville finish will go down as one of the “Classics!” It was one of those finishes that almost makes it “worthwhile” to put up with hours of commercials and sometimes even boredom.
(TV will never replace the excitement of being “at the track.”)
Even though Jeff Gordon was upset that he didn’t win, the mark of a true/winning competitor, he should be proud of the way Jimmie Johnson didn’t give in, give up, or pull over and let him by. JJ wouldn’t deserve to be in the seat of the #48 if he had done that.
I’m sure that fatherhood will help Jeff mature, and that someday he will look back on this race, almost like a proud Papa!
Jimmie and Jeff, Thanks for a great race that we will always remember, and thank you Jeff (& Rick) for nurturing such a great champion!

M. B. Voelker
04/02/2007 10:51 AM

I can’t believe the number of people who seem to believe that Jimmie should have rolled over and played dead so Jeff could win.

Jeff got beat. deal with it

Pam R.
04/02/2007 02:22 PM

Jeff Gordon seemed to peak in 1998 in his 6th full year in the Winston Cup series. That same year he won his 3rd Cup title. By the end of that year Gordon had accumulated 42 wins. That’s astonishing. But it seems that Gordon has forgotten those days. Suddenly he seems jealous of the very driver he hand picked to be in the #48 car. The car that he agreed to co-own with Rick Hendrick, because he believed Jimmie Johnson could be a champion. He saw in Johnson the drive and talent to be a great racer in the Cup series, and with his help Johnson has become just that.

So much so that by the end of Johnson’s 4th full year, Johnson almost matched Gordon’s first four years in wins with 18 to Gordon’s 19. No, Johnson didn’t have two Championships in his pocket at the end of his fifth year as Gordon did, he only had one; but the potential was there that he just might have had at least one more.

Did Jeff Gordon ever think that this unproven driver would ever knock him off the Hendrick throne with 23 wins in the same 5 year period that he would accumulate only 17? Did he ever envision that Johnson would really contend with the great Jeff Gordon himself? Could he ever have predicted that the team of Chad Knaus / Jimmie Johnson could rival the success of the Ray Evernham / Jeff Gordon match up? Did he ever really imagine Jimmie Johnson’s name would be mentioned more by the media than his own?

With Johnson’s twelve wins since the beginning of 2005 doubling Gordon’s six wins might there be some envy? Or maybe it’s just frustration. Does Jeff Gordon wish he never pushed for Jimmie to be a teammate?

Or it may have nothing to do with Jimmie at all. Perhaps he’s just wondering what happened to the good old days when he won about 1 in 3 races. Now he’s winning about 1 in 12. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it must leave him wondering what happened.

04/02/2007 03:36 PM

Jimmy Johnson’s career can be summed up just like the race. Without Gordon – and Gordon’s setup — he was the slowest car.

He hooked Johnson up with Hendrick. He has been mentoring him and helping him technically and on the track since.

Without Gordon, Jimmy Johnson would probably be a Jeremy Mayfield.

It would have shown a little class if Johnson had publicly thanked Gordon and Letarte for the setup.

J. L. Young
04/02/2007 07:40 PM

As much as I love Jeff, I would have been very disappointed with Jimmie had he not fought him off. He held the bottom line like the champ that he is. I’m very glad they didn’t wreck, but I thought Jeff would be able to move HIM up the track. I like Jimmie’s comment. There was a lot of room, he had a whole lane and could have gone around me. My husband’s comment, “Jeff, take Jimmie’s keys away from him!”


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