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Holding a Pretty Wheel: Why Johnson + Gordon = Uh-Oh – Teams Have Enough Trouble Without Making Their Own

It was as uncharacteristic as thunder straight out of a sunny sky. And, like a bolt from the blue that harmlessly strikes a lightning rod instead of causing an inferno, it could have been so much worse.

The fact that it wasn’t worse was blind luck, really. And the most worrisome part about it is the two cars in the eye of the squall weren’t rivals, but teammates – cars that should be working together and not tangling, both of them championship contenders. The duo averted disaster, but at least one of them was surely left wondering how dear the cost really was.

These teammates race each other as aggressively, if not more so, as anyone else on the racetrack. That’s how it should be: team orders should be left for holding up lapped traffic and the like… but there is a line. Really, there’s enough to worry about without starting an in-house spat.

And in this case, should the resentment simmer, it could have championship implications later.

It was both commonplace and a rarity, a study in contrasts. Jeff Gordon has long been known for a slightly aggressive style. He won’t put you in the wall very often, but if he’s fast and there’s real estate to be had, he has never shied away from moving a car with his bumper for position. So when teammate and one-time protégé Jimmie Johnson was bumped up the track to take over second place on lap 241, it wasn’t particularly unusual.

Johnson’s reaction, though, was the bolt out of a blue sky. The reigning four-time champ is one of the cleanest drivers in the sport, and to see him slam into the side of Gordon’s car was almost enough to cause a double take. There was never intent to wreck Gordon, but it certainly looked as if the No. 48, usually so smooth through the corners, turned down into Gordon’s No. 24 in a move that got everyone’s heart rising. It’s not that Gordon was giving Johnson an inch of space, but it doesn’t look as though Gordon drifted so high that he and Johnson couldn’t have avoided each other. It looked as if Johnson didn’t want to avoid him.

And that moment’s loss of composure cost Johnson track position – positions which he couldn’t regain, having to settle instead for second. That’s not a position he has had to settle for all that often, and for the last four years, it’s a position others, including Gordon twice, have had to get used to in the final standings. But that’s exactly what Johnson had to do after the incident.

While the damage was minimal, Johnson was forced to pit for the tire rub caused by the contact. He would cycle back to the lead briefly, only to lose it to Gordon, who had fresher tires by virtue of staying on pit sequence. Fighting from behind the rest of the day, Johnson wouldn’t see the top spot again. Was Johnson a lock to win the race before his temper got the better of him? No, he wasn’t. But in the closing laps, had the fastest car; if there was one more corner, he would probably have won the whole thing. Unfortunately, it was Johnson who had to do what no driver wants to ever have to do to put him in that spot – lose track position to prove a point. In the end, he had nobody to blame but himself.

Gordon, as it turns out, didn’t lose because of the contact with Johnson, but because of a later incident with Tony Stewart that damaged 14 cars, all of them on the lead lap. On his team radio after making contact with Johnson, though, Gordon voiced his frustration with the younger driver, snipping, “Oh, Mr. Four-time’s upset?” – a comment that turns around words Johnson had spoken after an incident a year or two ago, one where he was frustrated with Gordon’s lack of patience. But does it indicate a deeper issue?

Johnson says no. “It’s going to happen in racing,” he said after the race was over. “Doesn’t matter if it’s teammates or not. There are just times where you’re irritated by racing with other guys. You know, Jeff and I have been racing hard against each other for wins for a long time. We’ve had this issue in the past, so I really don’t see it being a big deal. I guess he got out and said he was disappointed. So since I have my chance, I can equally say I was pretty disappointed with him today. We’ll sit down and get it talked out.”

“In general, we’ve been through this before… so don’t get the headline writers out saying trouble at HMS, because it’s really no big deal. And we all know from scanning during the race, there are a lot of colorful things said on that racetrack about teammates and other drivers and all that kind of stuff. So to have the word disappointed used from Jeff and myself, I don’t think it is a very big deal.”

But, is Johnson protesting too much? Saying it’s no big deal and it not being any kind of deal are not the same thing. If it was really a non-issue, would anyone have to say it was a non-issue?

In a sport where winning gets harder every week, it could be a much bigger deal. Johnson is the defending champion four times over, and everyone, including Gordon, is gunning for him. Denny Hamlin showed his hand at Texas, winning even though he said he was “still not 100% by any means right now. I feel like I’m 60 at best,” after major knee surgery three weeks ago. Hamlin has a driving style similar to Johnson’s -except that his temper has gotten the best of him and perhaps kept him from making a serious title run to date. Hamlin is a threat, and Johnson knows it, admitting that he’s been warily watching the No. 11 since last season – the first time Johnson has admitted that anyone is in his team’s collective head.

Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle also loom large in the points picture, and both are also known for an aggressive style.

Johnson’s calm, clean driving in comparison has been perhaps the most dangerous asset he has. Racers race their competition the way those drivers race them, and Johnson has given no reason for anyone to retaliate; Stewart said at one point that he trusted Johnson more than almost any other driver, and that’s why drivers rarely cross that line with the El Cajon, Calif. native – he never crosses it with them. That may be Johnson’s hidden advantage, and it’s not one he can afford to lose, especially to a tiff with a teammate.

Face it: in racing, there are plenty of people gunning for you. A driver needs someone to watch his back, and the most logical someone is a teammate (Roger Penske sums it up best with a long-standing team rule: Don’t wreck each other, period.) Whether it’s a drafting partner on a plate track, someone to race hard from a lap down while you open a lead, or just someone you know is going to try not to wreck you, that’s not something to give up over a small bump for second place. For that matter, maybe it’s best not to make that bump for second place with almost 100 laps to go, either.

The message is clear: the last thing any driver needs is trouble with a teammate, so Johnson better fix this problem with Gordon ASAP. There’s enough trouble lurking outside the home shop… and like a bolt from the blue, it’s bound to strike.

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