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Thompson in Turn 5: Robby Gordon Continuing to Defy Conventional Wisdom

Not since the days of independent driver Dave Marcis, who through sheer determination managed to earn a living as a Cup driver and team owner, has any owner/driver showed more grit and fortitude than Robby Gordon. The proprietor of Robby Gordon Motorsports continues, though just barely, to defy the odds that overwhelmingly should have seen his team sitting on the sidelines. Instead, bolstered by his eighth-place finish Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, the multi-talented driver continues to remain within the Top 35 in owner points. As such, he is guaranteed a spot in the Sprint Cup field for Saturday night’s Bank of America 500.

Still struggling to remain inside the Top 35 certainly is not where the optimistic 39-year-old entrepreneur imagined he would be four years after taking his then-Busch Series operation Sprint Cup racing. Still, that he is even still surviving in this dog-eat-dog, deep-pocketed series has already proved many NASCAR insiders wrong. Back in 2004, they predicted Gordon’s chances of survival at “slim to none” when the California native announced his intentions to go it alone; but so far, slim’s won out.

In fact, following the offseason announcement that RGM had signed what was termed a technical, manufacturing and marketing agreement with Gillett Evernham Motorsports, Gordon exuded confidence, saying, “We’re going to win three races this year and we’re going to be very competitive right out of the box.” Taking it one step further, he added, “Why do I feel that? It’s not what I feel; it’s what I know.”

Predicting to win three races in 2008, equaling the total number of wins recorded by Gordon in his previous 270 Cup attempts, may have seemed like an insane statement at the time. However, Gordon had reason to believe his track fortunes were about to take a turn for the better. Keeping the truth private, he knew his agreement with GEM went considerably further than what the general public understood it to be. It was not the run-of-the-mill technical sharing deal, but a complete buyout-in-the-making that would give him unlimited aid in 2008. The deal would provide desperately needed help, money that could reasonably elevate a middle-tier team such as his No. 7 entry into one capable of competing for race wins.

Had the agreement been completed, Gordon would have received support from not only GEM, but eventually added manufacturer support from Dodge for the season. GEM would have then eventually bought RGM for a reported $23.5 million. Gordon, as part of the deal negotiated last January, would have then been under a four-year agreement to drive for GEM for an estimated $5 million in base pay, bonuses and benefits. The cherry on top of the sundae? He would have become a member of the company’s Board of Directors.

Indeed, had the deal stood and Gordon merged his operation, that would have marked the end of NASCAR’s only viable one team owner/driver effort. But the covert agreement fell apart this summer, and seemed headed for court before both parties resolved their differences. Assessing blame for the failure of the merger to occur would be somewhat like determining the guilty parties for the current meltdown of the U.S. financial sector. The bottom line isn’t about why it failed, but the fact that it did fail… and that left Gordon still struggling to survive.

Whatever the truth is concerning Gordon’s aborted relationship with GEM, it has not improved his chance for long-term survival. For the past two months, he has been in an extended battle for a Top-35 position in owner points with Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 00 team. Team owner Gordon presently has his No. 7 Dodge, with no sponsorship yet announced for Charlotte, a mere 39 points ahead of fellow owner/driver Michael Waltrip’s only team not safely positioned within the Top 35.

With such a fine line between success and failure, conventional wisdom would have seemed to dictate that Gordon – fighting for sponsorship dollars – would at this very moment be desperately seeking another suitor to either buy or affiliate his organization with. But not Robby. Recently rumored to be looking at some form of an alliance with DEI, Gordon dismissed the talk and claimed he has enough sponsorship in place for next season. “If people are estimating that we’re going to go away, obviously they don’t know me very well,” stated Gordon on his Sprint Cup future.

All bravado aside, Gordon’s proclamation is hard to contradict. Even with three manufacturer switches in three years, he has continued to make races and keep his head above water. That’s no small feat in the ultra-competitive multi-team environment flush with sponsorship money and factory backing that the Sprint Cup Series has become.

On the other hand, it would appear that the noose is tightening far quicker for RGM than its owner would like to admit. Though able to enter 2008 with Top-35 protection, the landscape is quickly changing for Gordon’s No. 7. Competitors are partnering up and forming larger and stronger organizations, rushing to maximize their influence before NASCAR’s four-car limit comes into play in 2010. The most successful teams in particular are the ones extending their tentacles, building alliances that go above and beyond that limit to make the new rule essentially useless. Additionally, the Toyota teams of Red Bull and MWR are now becoming legitimate top-20 contenders, cementing their place within the Top 35 in owner points. Simply put, there are fewer and fewer small and underfunded startup teams left for a one-team driver/owner to outperform.

Regardless of what transpires, though, Gordon has proved the “experts” wrong. Not only has he been able to continue to compete in the premier motorsports circuit in the United States for nearly four seasons, but during that period, he has built an organization that GEM, by way of their initial offer, has demonstrated is of value.

So, although Robby Gordon has no announced manufacturer lined up or sponsorship for the full schedule signed… who dares count him out in 2009?

I don’t.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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