Vito Pugliese · Monday April 2, 2007
If there was one redeeming value gleaned from the 1990 motion picture disaster "Days of Thunder", it was the now tried and true phrase, “rubbin's racin' “. There have been some great battles over just the last few years that really captured that notion. Ricky Rudd and Kevin Harvick in the closing laps of Richmond in 2001, Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch at Darlington in ’03, and Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson at Atlanta in ’05 are just a few of what have turned out to be impressive battles up front. Of course, it’s one of the most exciting and interesting things about a stock car race : when they're coming to the finish line, you have two guys who are leaning on each other, beating and banging not just to get to the checkered flag, but respecting their space enough not to take each other out. Sunday's Goody's Cool Orange 500 at Martinsville was another great exampleâ€¦luckily. While rubbin' is racin', there also is a tendency among some drivers to just move a guy out of the way to get a win, regardless of the repercussions. Jeff Gordon actually tried to do that on the last turn of the last lap on Sunday; however, the heartiness of the new Car of Tomorrow thwarted that attempt.
Jeff Gordon has had a very successful career and will go down in history as one of the greatest drivers in history. 75 wins, 4 championships, 4 Brickyard 400s, and 3 Daytona 500 victories are nothing to sneeze at. He has spent his entire career in the same car and with the same team owner; No. 24 and Jeff Gordon are as synonymous as Dale Earnhardt and No. 3. Jeff has a reputation as being a great talent behind the wheel…but he is also a practitioner of the move deemed, "The Bump and Run." This is accomplished not by gaining position on the opponent and getting under him, or rooting him up out of the corner to get alongside of him. Instead, it is performed by running into the back of them in the middle of the turn, upsetting the car and driving under them as they struggle to regain control of their machine. As the No. 24 stalked the No. 48 for the final 15 laps yesterday, Gordon never really got next to Johnson and gained position on him to execute a pass. Instead, he followed him, about a half car length off his bumper, waiting until the last possible moment to use a move of questionable ethics he has used several times in his career.
Entering the 3rd turn on the final lap, Gordon closed quickly to Johnson's 6 o'clock. He hit him once in the middle of turns 3 and 4, but Johnson didn't waiver. He then quickly hit him a 2nd and 3rd time, harder than the first hit. Johnson's car slipped a touch, but did not move off the bottom. Gordon did get a fender under him coming up out of the turn, and then proceeded to drive into the side of Johnson a couple of times coming to the finish line. Following the race, Johnson said the shot was hard enough that it shoved his helmet back into the seat. He also commented that in the old car, he probably would have lost it, but the way the bumpers are lined up in the CoT, it doesn't lift the rear tires off the ground as the old car did. Gordon expressed amazement that he wasn't able to move Johnson as hard as he was hitting him. He actually admitted on television that he was deliberately attempting to run into someone (his own teammate nonetheless) hard enough that they would lose control, several times, in an effort to move them out of the way for the win.
I might be in the minority here, but even for a short track race, that seems less than honorable to me… even if Gordon’s team did give Johnson’s team the setup that won the race.
Gordon first used his move of drilling someone in the middle of a turn on the last lap of Bristol in 1997. Rusty Wallace had led most of the event, and Gordon got to his bumper the last few laps. In the middle of the 3rd and 4th turn on the last lap, Gordon popped Rusty in the bumper and sent him skidding up the track as he went on to victory. Later that same year, at Darlington, Gordon made a swerving maneuver at Jeff Burton as he cleanly pulled alongside in the closing laps of the Southern 500. He ran into Burton quite hard, shoving him down out of the grove and nearly onto the apron of the racetrack. Gordon went on to win the Southern 500 and the Winston Million Bonus. In 2002 at Bristol, again chasing Wallace, Jeff Gordon again ran into the back of Wallace in the middle of the turn with a couple of laps left, soldiering on to take the win.
To which I ask: Is it really worth it?
At Richmond in 1997, Gordon was the recipient of a Wallace payback from the Bristol incident. Midway through the race, Wallace clipped Gordon in the middle of turns 1 and 2. Jeff, attempting to execute a 360 spin by standing on the throttle, spun the car around headfirst into the 2nd turn wall to the delight of the crowd. That may not sound like a big deal, wrecking on a short track (who hasn't done it?), but that year, Gordon barely won the Winston Cup by 14 points over Dale Jarrett, and for much of the final race at Atlanta was not the Champion. What if that Bristol win had actually cost him the Winston Cup? Is winning a race really worth pushing a guy out of the way and burning some bridges? Gordon has also had a few run-ins with Tony Stewart for not yielding position when maybe he should have. At Atlanta two weeks ago, he was involved in a hotly contested exchange with Juan Pablo Montoyaâ€¦..and Gordon was one lap down. Juan has shown thus far that he is respectful of his fellow competitors, but also doesn't leave much room for error, either. Is establishing a rivalry with a relative unknown the best way to go about winning a 5th career Championship?
Last week at Bristol, Jeff Burton on new tires had every opportunity to give Kyle Busch a little bit of a shove, drive under him, and into Victory Lane, and the fans probably would have cheered in approval. He opted to take the high road, saying that wrecking someone to win isn't really something to be proud of. The week before at Las Vegas during a Busch race, Kyle Busch actually ended up wrecking himself in an attempt to keep from running into and wrecking Jeff Burton as they came to the checkered flag at his home track. While it may have been "just" a Busch race, Kyle Busch's actions may have actually won him the race that mattered…the Nextel Cup race two weeks later at Bristol. It's another old adage, and one that applies to the Cup series more than perhaps other series; guys will race you the way you race them. You get what you give, and nowadays, you don't really see too many drivers moving out of Robby Gordon's way.
Tony Stewart has a rule. He'll follow you for a few laps, and if you keep blocking him or cutting him off, he'll lightly nudge you out of the way and move on. But he does it early on in the race, not waiting until the last possible second to perform some cowardly maneuver, to avoid any sort of retribution. Dale Earnhardt's spin to win in the 1999 Bristol Night Race against Terry Labonte was one of his most memorable moments, but also one of the least popular. Fans showered the racetrack with beer cans, pop bottles and other debris, along with greeting him with a loud chorus of boos and "No. 1" gestures upon his exiting of the car in Victory Lane. Casey Atwood "earned" his first of two career Busch wins in Milwaukee of 1999, by running into the back of Jeff Green on the last turn of the last lap. That didn't exactly earn him a whole lot of respect among his competitors, or endear him to the fans. Last season at Chicago, as Gordon was catching Matt Kenseth in the closing laps, he again opted to run into the leader from behind in the closing laps, this time in an apparent retaliation for something that happened months earlier at Bristol. It's ironic that the incident between Kenseth and Gordon at Bristol was reminiscent of the moves Gordon has made several times throughout his career at the very same race track.
While rubbin' is most defiantly racing, wrecking is most defiantly not. I know Martinsville has a really nice clock they give away, as do a lot of the other tracks that have their own special trophy. Is that really worth the risk of getting repaid later on down the road in the midst of a Championship run, as well as raising the ire and disapproval of the most passionate fans in all of sports?
In all fairness to Jeff Gordon, he didn't wreck Johnson, and it isn't like he has a reputation for running over guys coming up through the field. We all watched a great short track finish instead that proves that there are more reasons to keep both Martinsville dates besides the hot dogs and the train. While the Car of Tomorrow has its share of doubters and critics, one thing it can apparently do is fend off attempts to move it out of the way by running into it from behind. While Johnson was able to hold onto the win yesterday, Jeff Gordon's attempt to resurrect the past by waiting until the last turn of the lap to run into the back of the leader will hopefully be just that: A thing of the past, courtesy of The Car of Tomorrow.
Now, if they can just keep that foam from burningâ€¦..
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