Editor’s Note: Tom Bowles is off from Bowles-Eye this week, so in its place we felt it appropriate to print one of his columns written in April on the emerging rivalry between Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Looking back, it’s become both true and prophetic, especially how the Chase for the Championship wound up developing this season.
As darkness fell on Martinsville Speedway, Gordon walked down pit road like a 5-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 protege who had beaten the master at his own game – again – and Gordon could only blame himself.
As 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 protege 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 points 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 certain 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.