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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: No Need for Jeff Gordon to Toot His Own Horn

Last Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, fans witnessed one of the city’s “favorite sons,” Kyle Busch, charge from the (almost) rear of the field to dominate the final laps of the Shelby 427. In the process, Busch improved his ranking in the Sprint Cup driver standings 12 positions, putting himself right back into contention for the season-long title. The 23-year-old Busch now heads into next week’s showdown at the super-fast Atlanta Motor Speedway sixth in points, trailing new leader Jeff Gordon by just 59.

Now, neither Gordon leading the driver standings nor Busch winning a race are particularly Earth-shattering events. With nine wins over the past year plus, NASCAR fans have become accustomed to watching Busch wheel his No. 18 M&M’s Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota into victory lane on a regular basis. Likewise, Gordon sitting atop the point standings is a position that fans have seen many times during the 37-year-old’s 18 full seasons competing in NASCAR’s top division.

But what might be of surprise to fans of the sport is that the four-time Cup champion, who is the wins leader among active drivers and destined to end his career at least third on the all-time win list, wishes he was as talented as Busch! That’s right; in a pre-race interview that aired before the Las Vegas event, Gordon told FOX commentator and NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip, “I wish I had the talent that Kyle Busch has.”

It was unclear whether Gordon – who won his first championship in 1995 when he was approximately Busch’s age – was just being charitable towards his former teammate, or if he sincerely believes that Busch possesses superior skills to his own. Only the four-time champ himself can know for sure; but the fact that Gordon would make such a statement to begin with should not come as a surprise to anyone that has followed his career.

The actual question of whether Busch is even as talented as Gordon is, of course, impossible to answer with any degree of certainty and just as difficult to prove. The question might be good kindling for a parking lot tailgating debate over a few cold ones… but in the end, opposing camps would still remain unconvinced by the arguments of the other.

NEFF: IT AIN’T BRAGGING IF YOU CAN BACK IT UP

The only absolute in such an discussion would be that they are each, considering their performances, immensely talented stock car drivers. Both men have encountered instantaneous success at a young age, have driven in some of the best equipment in the business, and encountered a similar amount of Busch/Nationwide Series success before embarking on a career at the Cup level. Winning races is evidence of talent behind the wheel… winning lots of races confirms that a driver is particularly gifted. And winning lots of races is something both Gordon and Busch have accomplished, with Gordon having the advantage for now due to his longevity in the sport.

However, no one should have been surprised that Gordon would give such a modest and complimentary answer to Waltrip’s question. Gordon is a person that is clearly comfortable with himself. His self-effacing response is not out of the ordinary and has for the most part been his style since… well, since we’ve been first aware of Gordon since his USAC days of the late 1980s.

Gordon’s reserved demeanor as a youngster entering the Cup Series contrasted greatly from that of Busch’s “in your face” attitude. In some ways, Gordon must still be able to empathize with the predicament that Kyle Busch finds himself confronted with – any young, relatively inexperienced driver that dominates races and championships, regardless of how he carries himself on or off the track, will be jeered by a significant segment of the race crowd. Race fans already have a favorite driver and do not much care to see that driver routinely whipped by a young “whipper-snapper,” a kid still wet behind the ears and not, in their estimation, old enough to have paid their dues.

The booing started early for Gordon, as the then 20-something upstart gave the large anti-Jeff Gordon contingent plenty of opportunity to demonstrate their displeasure with him and his winning ways. In his first six years, the boyish looking California native amassed 42 wins and three Cup championships. In the process, he overtook the sport’s favorite son, Dale Earnhardt, establishing his place as the top-performing driver within Cup racing during that time period. Talk about an unpopular position to be in; race fans can be brutal, and no driver has ever been subjected to their anger more than Gordon.

However, Gordon to this day has never lashed out at those that have chided him for his audacity to rub fenders with the likes of legends Earnhardt or Rusty Wallace… two fender-rubbers in their own right, I might add. The young Gordon gave as good as he got. Never has he allowed competitors to intimidate him, and he has always fought, most often cleanly, for his share of the racetrack.

At 37, there really is nothing else for Gordon to prove – something that he seems to have known would be the end result from the beginning. But Gordon has never been one to take credit for his success. Early on, when a young driver might be full of self-importance, he consistently deflected the spotlight and gave credit to those around him. Credit always went to the crew chief, his crew, Mr. Hendrick, and very often to a competitor or two that “raced me clean.”

Even during the peak of his success, one would believe that every win was Gordon’s first trip to victory lane. Even now, he genuinely seems surprised at his continued good fortunes in the No. 24 Chevrolet. The car is always awesome… the crew is always great. He feels better than ever, and wants to go out of his way to thank everyone that won the race for him. Even in defeat, the typical reaction is upbeat on Gordon’s part… “the crew worked really hard today.” Gordon seems to always find something positive to say and someone else to praise.

So, with that in mind of course Jeff Gordon has no problem giving Kyle Busch a compliment at his own expense. After all, when you’re good, the record will speak for itself.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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