NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Take the Pain – Should Jeff Gordon’s Back Injury Be a Storyline as the Championship Chase Looms?

Playing hurt is one of the inevitabilities in professional sports, and the world of motorsports is no exception.

In NASCAR particularly, it seems that more often than not, competing with an injury becomes the defining aspect of a championship season, and in recent years has played a significant role in determining the Sprint Cup champion. In 2009, that trend has continued, with Jeff Gordon battling a persistent bad back that was aggravated in a late-race wreck at Watkins Glen two weeks ago when he struck the spinning-in-midair car of Sam Hornish Jr. and then the blue Armco barrier lining the track. With three races remaining before the 2009 Chase for the Championship begins at New Hampshire, Gordon sits second in points, on the wings of a strong second-place showing at Michigan International Speedway and his lone win so far this season at Texas back in April.

Gordon is not the only driver who has had to battle back from injury in recent years. In 2006, Tony Stewart suffered a broken right scapula courtesy of two grinding crashes in the Nationwide Series event in May at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, and again 24 hours later in the Coca-Cola 600. Stewart would win five races that year, but missed out on racing for the championship in large part due to his injury and the performance that followed. Yet had he qualified for the Chase, he would have brought to bear three wins, a second- and a fourth-place finish amassing 1,424 points. Contrast that to Jimmie Johnson, the series champion for 2006, who scored 1,430 points during that same 10-race stretch.

Yes, Johnson still had more points that year; but factoring in any margin for error, had Stewart been in contention, would there have been a change in strategy along the way, or even an outdueling of position between the two drivers that would have resulted in a change of position or two?

Keep in mind that Johnson was also driving all year with his torso intact.

In 2004, Dale Earnhardt Jr. did his best impression of Richard Pryor and the Buddhist monk on the cover of Rage Against The Machine’s first album during practice for American Le Mans Series Race at Infineon Raceway. The C5 Corvette he was piloting backed into some tires and hay bales, quickly bursting into flames. The resulting mess of fiberglass began to melt around him, as safety crews – and another set of hands from above, according to Junior – pulled him from the burning wreckage. Suffering burns on his face and legs, Earnhardt Jr. was in rough shape that summer in what was becoming his career season to date. Eventually, his bid for a title that year would fall less than 150 points short.

There was another Earnhardt who was not immune to injury during his driving career as well. In 1982, Dale Earnhardt Sr. broke his left knee in a violent crash at Pocono Raceway; many probably remember the sight of Tim Richmond helping Earnhardt across the track, waiting for medical attention. In ’96, while leading the DieHard 500 at Talladega, he was then turned head-on into the wall at nearly 200 mph in the tri-oval, in a chain-reaction wreck started by Ernie Irvan and Sterling Marlin. Earnhardt escaped with a shattered shoulder; however, it would affect him greatly and perhaps derailed what would have been his record-setting eighth championship run.

The next week at Indianapolis, Junior was driven to tears when he had to vacate his No. 3 Goodwrench Monte Carlo – his racecar – to Mike Skinner, unable to muscle around the 2.5-mile superspeedway one-armed. He did, however, win the pole position a week later at Watkins Glen, breaking the track record in the process and leading over half the race.

Earnhardt was driven to exhaustion by the end, his sixth-place finish a testament to the effort and sheer will needed to compete at this level of competition, working through excruciating pain and obvious physical limitations in the process.

Speaking of Irvan and Marlin, there’s two other drivers who had championship seasons derailed by injury.

Marlin was in contention for his first Cup title in 2002 when a wreck at Kansas left him on the sidelines with a broken neck – but fortunately alive and not in a wheelchair. Even more unfortunate for Marlin, the first race he missed was at Talladega, a track where he had posted two of his 10 career wins; the following week, rookie Jamie McMurray won at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in only his second career start driving Marlin’s No. 40.

As for Irvan, he was second in points to Earnhardt after the 20th race of the season in ’94, following a second-place finish to Mark Martin at Watkins Glen. In morning practice for the next race at Michigan, Irvan’s No. 28 Texaco Thunderbird blew a right-front tire, sending it straight into the outside wall on the backstretch at over 170 mph. He was airlifted to an Ann Arbor hospital where, suffering from brain trauma, he clung to life with only a 10% chance of survival. For weeks he was kept alive by machines, and while over a year later he would return to competition, 1994 was the last time he mounted a serious challenge for a championship.

Nonetheless, considering how far Irvan came from where he was, his is perhaps the ultimate championship performance, ever.

Taking these instances into consideration, Gordon’s back pain seems tame in comparison. That is, however, unless you are actually the one having to deal with it. Gordon’s new teammate, Martin, is no stranger to back issues affecting what would be a concerted charge for a Cup championship. In 1999, Martin was hobbled by a broken wrist and knee that occurred during a blown tire-induced crash in the closing minutes of Happy Hour at Daytona in July, complementing an existing deteriorating spinal condition that would require a fusion at season’s end. Perhaps it was the result of those Body By Jake infomercials he participated in a few years prior….

Anyways, a task as simple as bending over to tie his shoes became a chore with which Martin would need assistance. His crew would pick him up like a 140-pound sack of potatoes, shoveling him into the seat of his racecar so he could compete. After the race, he would sit with his forehead on the roof of the car as he sat on the door ledge, unable to move after three hours wadded up in a car seat.

There’s a lesson to be learned here: Back pain may not require a cast or a ventilator, but it’s no laughing matter, particularly when you are running into pirouetting Penske Dodges and baby blue guardrails in upstate New York. A spine, after all, is a terrible thing to waste, and keep in mind back issues hobbled and prematurely retired two of the greatest champions in NASCAR history – Ned Jarrett and David Pearson.

So in that regard Gordon, as always, is in some pretty heady company.

These are just a few instances of guys driving as banged up as their cars are following a dustup at Martinsville, a Bristol fracas or an impromptu Alabama junkyard at Talladega. Images abound of Ricky Rudd racing the week after he experienced perhaps the most spectacular looking crash ever in the Busch Clash at Daytona in 1983 with his eyes taped open, or Davey Allison with blackened eyes (not the skin around his eyes on his face – his actual eyes) following his Pocono wreck in 1992. Richard Petty drove with a broken neck and half of his stomach rotting, and Buddy Baker still competed while on the verge of a cerebral hemorrhage. There was a reason Rowdy Burns (not Busch) in Days of Thunder uttered the line, “I’ve raced with my legs broke, heart bruised and my eyes poppin’ out of my head like they were on springs.”

It’s because these guys actually do it.

Gordon has said in recent weeks that his back spasms have flared up a bit, but were going to be less of an issue at Michigan and some of the bigger, smoother tracks. That was, of course, before his wreck at Watkins Glen, which he said undid much of the progress he had made this year from stretching, training, and other treatments to alleviate the pain cause by three decades of sitting in a racecar and running into things with it at a high rate of speed.

Looking ahead, there are two tracks coming up on the schedule that Gordon no doubt has circled as potential pain points (pun intended). There are Bristol and Richmond, short tracks that are diametrically different and pose their own challenges. Bristol, with its 36 degrees of banking (that may be actually close to 30 since its 2007 ruining) has always put a physical strain on the driver’s head, neck and back. Richmond is flatter, but requires a lot of braking these days, slowing down from speedway velocities to short-track speeds in the turns.

That being said, Gordon isn’t going to let it derail any hopes he may have at making the Drive for Five come to fruition. “Man, let’s stop talking about my back,” he said at Michigan International Speedway this past weekend. “We’re done talking about my back. Let’s move on. I’m here. I’m fine. Let’s move on to something else.”

Playing hurt is part of the game. In NASCAR, it’s become as much a part of the landscape as post-race burnouts, Gatorade showers and champagne baths. Could it determine the final outcome as to who the 2009 Sprint Cup champion is? We’ll know soon enough, as two of the next three weeks will be the biggest test yet for Jeff Gordon as he preps for another playoff push.

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