The biggest storylines floating in people’s craniums between Sunday’s TUMS Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway and next Sunday’s AMP Energy 500 at Talladega will likely center around the three title contenders, the tiny point margins in between them, and the likelihood that the track’s typical madness will shake up the Chase standings. But while Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick wage a battle at the top of the charts, veterans Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton are waging battles of their own – against themselves.
Gordon’s winless drought has been epic. After winning six races in 2007, the four-time Cup champ threw a goose egg in the victory column in ’08 and managed just one – at the April Texas race – during a strong ’09 season. That year saw the No. 24 team run very well, lead many laps, and mount an impressive cushion atop the points early in the year, only to falter down the stretch and fall well short of that elusive fifth title.
The 2010 season in many ways has mirrored ’09 for Gordon. He and Harvick forged a points breakaway from the rest of this season’s top drivers, built on the strength of consistently guiding their Chevys to solid top-10 and top-five finishes. Yet it’s the No. 29 team taking the next step, contending for the title while taking pride in victory lane celebrations at Talladega, Daytona and Michigan in August. Meanwhile, Gordon sits there with empty pockets, leading the most laps in a season without a victory (918) since Harry Gant‘s 1,169 in 1981.
The drought has become frustrating, surprising, and outright perplexing for the four-time champ. In strong Hendrick Motorsports equipment, Gordon often leads races early, only to either fall victim to pit strategy or poor setup choices late, thus forcing him to watch his teammate Johnson and Hamlin coast to victory lane. Needless to say, this pattern has left a big chip on his shoulder – a chip that is starting to etch away at the edge that once made him the driver everyone chased.
Gordon’s futility in crunch situations is a direct result of his pent-up aggression, because the drive to win sometimes pushes him over the edge. During the April race at Texas, Gordon led 124 laps and clearly had the best car in the field. But his crew chief Steve Letarte’s choice to pit for tires sunk him back in the pack for a late race restart. Desperate to make up as many positions as possible, Gordon made a gutsy move next to Tony Stewart, causing both to wreck and eliminating the No. 24 and Stewart’s No. 14 from contention. Similar circumstances occurred at Phoenix, as Ryan Newman outfoxed Gordon on a late restart to end a long winless drought of his own. Gordon also found himself losing the lead on a late restart during the March Martinsville race, as he retaliated against what he thought was a low-ball move by Matt Kenseth, shuffled both drivers out of the lead, and opened the door for – you guessed it – Hamlin to win at the half-mile paperclip.
Fast forward to Sunday’s race and the story plays out similarly. Gordon led 56 laps surrounding the 500-lap race’s midpoint and seemed poised to hold the top spot or at least stay close to the front and challenge for the lead on a late restart. Instead, his aggression got the best of him, as he laid sheetmetal to Kurt Busch just enough to conjure ire from the pilot of the No. 2 Dodge. Busch fired back in true short-track fashion, unceremoniously dumping the No. 24 on the frontstretch on lap 386. Gordon never rebounded, sustaining heavy damage and finishing 20th. The bad run was a double whammy of sorts, taking away yet another chance to win while sinking his already dim hopes at a fifth title to a near unrecoverable depth. Say what you want about the No. 2 car, but Busch was but one of several drivers, including Johnson, whom Gordon rubbed the wrong way Sunday. That feeling about him is not new, either – just ask Martin Truex Jr. his thoughts about the No. 24 after they tangled at Infineon Raceway in June.
On the flip side, Burton’s reputation as a clean, steady driver is chipping away and aiding his vulnerability in clutch situations. While Gordon has always been known as at least slightly aggressive, Burton is thought of as a driver who rarely pushes the issue and brings his car home in one piece. The 2010 season has written a new chapter in the veteran’s story, however, as the driver of the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevy has driven aggressively, ruffled feathers and fallen short.
Burton has fit this mold most notably at both Martinsville races, leading over 100 laps in each event until getting shuffled back in the pack as the race’s intensity heated up in the closing laps. He had the race in hand in March, but cut a tire and finished 20th, ruining perhaps his best chance to drive into victory lane this year. Sunday, he was criticized multiple times by both NASCAR and Harvick, his teammate, for starting the field improperly. Burton also got into Harvick more than once, prompting some severe radio transmissions from his driver – including one saying that Burton was “out of mulligans.” Burton faded to ninth at the day’s end, continuing a winless streak that still dates back to Charlotte Motor Speedway in October 2008.
Almost any race car driver would kill for the careers and stats that both Gordon and Burton have. Both are multimillionaires and have won many Cup races. Gordon has even won championships. But as other drivers rise to the occasion, the pressure has mounted so much with both men, their decisionmaking in closing laps of events is suspect and costs each wins that they likely would have snared without the extra clutch-pressure and associated edge loss. Those questionable calls even extend out to their crews, both of whom have made out-of-rhythm calls at inappropriate times to fuel the fire.
“It is what it is,” said Burton after an uncharacteristic loss of composure at Loudon in September, where a faulty fuel calculation left him running out of gas instead of contending for a top-five finish, perhaps a win in the final laps.
Six months earlier, no less than Gordon was saying the same thing after a two-tire stop proved costly. “Sometimes, that tough call can go against you,” was his rationalization for losing a Las Vegas race where he’d led 219 laps only to fall victim to Johnson at the finish.
Two men, filled with excuses and frustration instead of the once-uncanny ability to close the deal. And unless the Jeff’s find that elusive last lap adrenaline rush, neither will be adding to their trophy cases in 2010 even though their cabinets should be filled with them.
Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory most Saturdays, from 12-1 p.m., on AM-750 and NOW 95.5 FM News/Talk WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.