Thompson In Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Tuesday March 13, 2007
Owner / Driver Robby Gordon, never one to shy away from the spotlight, became the target of heavy criticism this past weekend at Las Vegas. Early on in the race, he lost control while attempting to pass on the inside of the race track, involving himself in an incident with drivers Casey Mears and Ward Burton, ruining their days. Burton recorded a last place finish as a result of the wreck, and Mears, whose car was able to briefly return, finished a disappointing 40th on the day. The FOX race commentators were in unanimity during the numerous replays of the melee in that Gordon's failed attempt to execute such an aggressive pass only nineteen laps into the race was ill-advised. Mears minced no words in placing the blame on Gordon. “It amazes me,” Mears said. “Every time I think Robby can’t do anything any more stupid than he’s already done, he one-ups himself.
“It’s so early in the race. The tires are some of the hardest tires to drive we’ve had all year. It’s such a long race, and he puts us three-wide going into Turn 1. It’s ridiculous. He’s trying to pull something off in the first opening laps when it means nothing. I guess he’s trying to be a hero, you know?”
Gordon, on the other hand, believed that he was pinched down onto the apron, causing the car to slide out from underneath him. Whatever his reasoning, the accident hardly left Gordon a victim; he wound up with a 17th place finish in the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400. That Top 20 run resulted in Gordon's No. 7 Ford team being positioned in 14th place in the Nextel Cup standings this week, only twelve points behind tenth place driver Elliott Sadler in what is Gordon’s strongest start to a season in years. And though it's certainly too early in the season for anyone to get their hopes up concerning the season-ending ten race Chase to the Nextel Cup, Gordon sits only five points behind Yates protÃ©gÃ© David Gilliland for the twelfth and final qualifying spot.
That Gordon is once again being accused of over aggressive driving in the backdrop of a solid start to his year is neither surprising nor particularly newsworthy. Robby Gordon has been a hard-charging, give-no-quarter type of driver his entire racing career. It is a reputation that has followed him through the many disciplines of motorsports that he has participated and enjoyed success in. Whether competing in off-road racing, sport cars, open-wheel or stock car, drivers know that Robby Gordon can be expected, on track, to make the aggressive move more often than not.
However, what has become more apparent is that NASCAR's media establishment continues to miss or ignore the more intriguing and interesting story on Robby Gordonâ€¦ that of a driver that continues to survive and prosper in the highly competitive and exclusive club of NASCAR Nextel Cup racing ownership against almost insurmountable odds. It’s a remarkable story that continues to develop and rival the legendary accomplishments of another owner/driver and 1992 Cup Champion, the late Alan Kulwicki; not since then has any “lone wolf” accomplished as much in the ever increasingly expensive, competitive, and unforgiving racing series.
Since the debut of Robby Gordon Motorsports’ Cup entry at the 2005 Daytona 500, this man has understood that nothing was going to come easy. The team was fined $50,000 and docked 25 owner points for a race in which they failed to qualify for (sound familiar, Michael Waltrip?). After that inauspicious beginning Gordon has had to continue overcoming hurdle after hurdle to compete. Blown engines were an early handicap with engines supplied by John Menard, forcing Gordon to abandon the experimental power plants before their true potential could ever be realized. In addition, Gordon recorded several failures to qualify for races during 2005, sometimes as a victim of the Top 35 rule that allowed slower cars into the field even though Gordon’s qualifying speeds were faster. Bad luck and DNF’s due to wrecks and mechanical failure all contributed to relegate Gordon to a 37th place points finish by the end of that season.
It appeared that pessimistic predictions of Gordon’s failure as an owner/driver would come to fruition at that point. “He’s certainly a good driver and certainly has the talent, but trying to make it on your own with your own team â€” I don’t know if that business model works anymore,” said multi-car owner Chip Ganassi at the time, who Gordon drove for in the Indy Racing League ten years ago. “I could be wrong. More power to him, but I think it’s a tall hill to climb.”
Those doubts on Gordon's chances of success were echoed by his former car owner, Richard Childress. “If anybody could pull it off in today’s world, Robby could,” Childress said. “You have to admire him for trying to make it as a car owner and a driver. It’s just tough today trying to make it â€” even tougher than it was â€” with all the technology. It takes several teams to distribute (the costs).”
Apparently, Robby Gordon never got the memo that he was destined to fail. 2006 saw a marked improvement, as Gordon continued to prove the skeptics wrong. After missing seven races the previous year, Gordon qualified for all thirty-six races and gained Top 35 protection by virtue of his 30th place position in the season-ending point total.
The road as an owner / driver has not gotten easier while Gordon’s gotten better. Having lost his longtime sponsor Harrah's Resort and Casinos through no fault of his own, Gordon now struggles to simply accumulate the financial backing necessary to compete. This fact and a still unexplained snafu in expected sponsor support from Monster, the energy drink rival to Red Bull, resulted in the No. 7 Ford racing last Sunday with no sponsorship logos on its hood.
Which brings us back to the racing at Las Vegas. Casey Mears understandably was upset with Gordon’s lack of patience during last Sunday’s race, but what Mears fails to understand is that Robby Gordon does not have the luxury of being patient and just “riding” for a while. Unlike the talented driver, who is locked into a long-term contract with the highly successful and well-financed Hendrick Motorsports team, Gordon was driving a car he owns and with no primary sponsorship. In his situation, following is really not an option; Gordon needs to make things happen. When he believes that there is a good possibility of advancing his position, he has to “go for it,” as his very survival in the sport depends on him doing the exceptional…not the expected.
Now, Robby Gordon is not going to win any Mr. Congeniality votes from his on-track peers as a result of that behavior, and certainly, there is not a Most Popular Driver award awaiting him in the near future. But like the aforementioned Kulwicki during his years of fighting against all odds for success and survival, those recognitions are not a priority to him in a sport that will “chew up and spit out” a competitor at the first sign of weakness.
Robby Gordon's brashness and aggressiveness on the track is a reflection of his overall makeup, and are probably the very traits that have allowed him to endure so far as an owner / driver at the highest level of stock car racing. Yet, there is a bigger story here that fans have yet to catch on to…the story of David vs. Goliath. And it is puzzling to me. Americans generally like to root for the underdog, and in this sport, there is no bigger underdog than Robby Gordonâ€¦ NASCAR owner/driver.
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