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On the surface, it’s hard to believe that it’s desperation time for Jeff Gordon. He’s fifth in the standings, solidly in the Chase, and Sunday’s fifth-place finish was his seventh top five in the first 16 races. That’s tied for the most top fives in the Cup Series with Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin.
However, Hamlin’s won five races and Johnson’s win Sunday put his season tally at four. Gordon? He’s still stuck at zero.
It’s not like Gordon had been faltering, either. Coming into Sonoma, he had three finishes of sixth or better in the last five races, with just one outside the top 15. And that 32nd-place finish at Pocono is a bit of a misnomer, as he was heading for a possible top 10 until Kasey Kahne almost left the Long Pond Straight.
But Gordon knows that racking up top fives isn’t going to get it done at this point. As of now, he stands to start the Chase 50 points behind, and at the rate that Hamlin’s been going on the ovals, that deficit may grow to 70 or 80.
Hamlin said before Sonoma that he wasn’t as worried about the road courses as he was the ovals. After all, there are no road courses in the Chase, so what’s the point? Gordon and others saw this as one of their best chances to gain 10 points.
Maybe Gordon took that to the extreme. He was involved in no fewer than four incidents on Sunday. He got into Mattias Ekstrom, who, consequentially, sent David Ragan spinning (Ragan was fourth at the time.) Just a couple turns and the esses later, Gordon inexplicably tried a late pass on Martin Truex Jr. in the hairpin that sent Truex spinning in front of the field. Heck, “late” may not even do it justice. It was too late for Gordon to go to a 24-hour diner.
Truex was not impressed.
“It’s alright,” Truex told TNT. (And no, Truex didn’t think that everything was all right.) “What goes around comes around. These guys don’t want to have any respect for me, I’ll have none for them, and I’ll get him at Loudon.”
The “him” obviously, was Gordon.
“It was pretty wild and crazy. I made a lot of guys mad today,” Gordon said. “I certainly owe Martin Truex an apology. He was just racing as clean as he could, and I was racing with Juan Pablo [Montoya] and I just got in there and took him straight out. I feel awful about that… You just had to race so hard there at the end. Guys were just running people off the racetrack. Running into the back of them. It was like being on a short dirt track. I know we’ve made a lot of people mad. We finished top five, we’ll just take it. It tore our racecar up and we never had a shot of winning after that, but a lot of guys didn’t finish in the top five like we did either, so oh well.”
Since Gordon’s spin of Truex put Truex back in the pack, Truex was a casualty of the pileup on the next restart. While Truex was well aware of why he was back there in the first place, he took some of his frustration out on the double-file restart system, which has now been in effect for 38 points races.
“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Truex said. “Everything is fine until we have restarts, and then it’s like guys running 10th are going to win the race. It’s stupid and it’s uncalled for.”
Those double-file restarts have potentially cost Gordon four victories this season. He was passed by Hamlin at Martinsville, crashed out with Tony Stewart at Texas, held off by Ryan Newman at Phoenix and passed by Kyle Busch at Richmond. In those four races, Gordon led 363 laps.
“Crazy. We had an awesome racecar on the long runs,” Gordon said. “We needed those long runs. We weren’t very good on the short runs. On the restarts, you just got used up. Guys making it three-wide, and I’m as guilty of it as anybody. After they started doing it to me, I had to do it to others. There are some things that I’m not proud of that I did today; certainly with Martin [Truex Jr.]. I mean, I completely messed that up and I will try to patch that up. Other things that happened out there were just really hard racing incidents.”
Those other racing incidents Gordon speaks of were contact with Elliott Sadler in turn 11, which sent Sadler and Clint Bowyer spinning, and then contact with Kurt Busch after the final restart that left Busch with a flat tire.
“Kurt Busch had everything coming to him that I gave him because he gave it to me on the restart before that, so I don’t feel sorry about that. I certainly do with Martin. With Elliott [Sadler], I feel bad. I was racing him hard, he was blocking me but we were trying to race somebody else, too; that was probably my fault as well.”
Yes, Gordon was apologetic afterwards. There’s no denying that. But at the same time, Gordon said that he felt he needed to race aggressively. And there’s no denying he did that, either.
Ever since that fourth championship, Gordon’s been good, not great. And with the emergence of a new four-time champion – who, as we all know, is his teammate – Gordon’s publicly acknowledging that good isn’t simply good enough if he wants to become a five-time champion first.
It’s maddening to have the best car on a consistent basis with nothing to show for it. That’s the tale of Gordon’s 2010 season. Guys with cars not nearly as good as his have taken advantage of those double-file restarts to get around Gordon. And if there was ever a great opportunity for Gordon to see if he could be on the other side of the equation, it was Sunday. He didn’t have a car that was anywhere near the ones of Marcos Ambrose or Johnson. Plus, this current car has turned road racing from an intricate sculpture to a canvas with four or five different types of paint splattered over it. The process isn’t pretty, and neither were Gordon’s actions.
Move over, New Kyle Busch; we may be looking at the New Jeff Gordon.
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