Enterprise: Race in and get the same deals drivers and teams use
NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Gordon’s Great Debate

Thirteen years ago this month, with the sport still reeling from the loss of its Intimidator, a Rainbow Warrior cut through battle to earn NASCAR Cup title number four. Just 30 years old, Jeff Gordon was no Dale Earnhardt, Sr., either in personality or presence, but the stat sheet told us a different story. With the best team, a new crew chief in Robbie Loomis and the tragic death of Earnhardt, it looked like reaching the mystical number seven, NASCAR’s championship record, was becoming a realistic possibility. Gordon, armed with a squeaky clean image, a Miss America-type wife and the support of multi-million sponsor DuPont, looked poised to lead NASCAR into a new era of growth and prosperity.

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
Jeff Gordon walked away from Phoenix eliminated from championship contention by a single point on Sunday. (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

Instead, as the checkered flag fell at Phoenix Sunday, Gordon still finds himself stuck at four, forced to wait another year for that breakthrough to jolt him back from the depths of perpetual heartbreak. 43 years old now, graying hair replacing those boyhood looks, the father of two, divorced and now remarried, sees Father Time draw ever closer in his rear-view mirror. It’s been an eventful decade-plus of solid, yet declining performance for the cornerstone of Hendrick Motorsports, a man whose success has been eclipsed in large part by teammate Jimmie Johnson. The torch for that drive for seven has been passed, the No. 48 undergoing the same type of pressure and criticism Gordon once endured every week. Now, he’d be happy with five, simply pushing for one more title so his children, Ella and Leo could remember a time when their father stood atop the stock car world.

Finally, this year it looked like Gordon could make it happen, climbing back atop the Hendrick totem pole with the perfect mix of consistency and contention. Leading the points most of the year, he ended the regular season atop the standings and remained a formidable foe throughout the Chase. Four victories, his most since 2007, include the prestigious Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis. 14 top-5 finishes, paired with 22 top-10 results, are the most in each category for him since 2009.

For Gordon, it was a renaissance year, one that would have him leading the points by 29 without a playoff reset. Surely, his season deserved a place in NASCAR’s final round, in position to challenge fellow contenders Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano for the big prize this Sunday. A runner-up finish at Phoenix, after entering the weekend tied for the fourth and final Chase spot, would appear to be enough to push him through.

Or not. Gordon’s Chase, in the first year of NASCAR’s new format, was victimized by his inability to push anyone else around. On the final restart Sunday, with Harvick in another stratosphere, Gordon refused to put the bumper to the back of the No. 4 car. Racing clean, he came to the checkers with little more than a dust mark on the side of his Chevrolet, filled with pride but problematic in that he didn’t control his title destiny. A few seconds back, a winless Ryan Newman, who has as many top-5 finishes (four) as Gordon has victories this season decided rubbing fenders was his only way to make the Final Four. Rubbing, slamming, squeezing his way past Kyle Larson, through turns 3 and 4 earned him another position, an extra point in the standings – and with it, the ability to push Gordon to the sidelines and deny him yet another shot at the series title.

“I hope we taught somebody that you can race clean,” Gordon said after learning it was contact, back in the pack that knocked him out. “[Race clean] and still go out there and give it your best.  You don’t have to wreck people to make it in the Chase or win the championship.”

The comments were one final slap to Brad Keselowski, whose contact up front in the closing laps at Texas flattened Gordon’s tire and, in essence his season under this new format. One 29th-place anvil is enough to drag you down in this Eliminator Round, a three-race sprint that two second-place finishes couldn’t fix.

“It’s tough to swallow,” he said before admonishing aggressive behavior like a teenage dad calling out curfew. “Don’t think that that’s not going to come back to you, you know. I mean, I could have taken out Harvick, too, to make it in, but I didn’t.”

No, Gordon didn’t, a Mark Martin style of gentleman racing that’s defined him during the post-Earnhardt era. People forget, but the Rainbow Warrior in the early days had no problem playing bump, run and figure out consequences later. There was the Bristol brouhaha of 1997, a race where Rusty Wallace was shoved out of the way to victory on the final lap. He and Earnhardt weren’t afraid to scrape paint, even during a 13-win season in 1998. But as he aged, Gordon softened, keeping contact to a minimum while emphasizing old-age consistency.

It’s a formula that, had NASCAR never made the Chase, earned him that mythical number “seven.” In 2004 and ’07, the latter of which Gordon had a modern era record 30 top-10 results, he would have been crowned Cup champion. 2014 looks to have unfolded in much the same way; Gordon is DNF free and has just two finishes outside the top 25, easily outpacing Joey Logano in the “old system.” Can you imagine how different the sport might look today if he had captured those trophies?

“That’s just the system that we have,” he said when asked about what might have been. “You’ve got to race a system the way that it’s structured and I’m so proud that I can hold my head up and say that I drove my heart out.”

Still, pride doesn’t fill that gap on the stat sheet when it comes to overall performance. Gordon’s year was defined by the aggressive actions of others, Newman’s final-lap tussle along with the fender-rubbing finish precipitated by Keselowski. Is it a matter of bad luck biting Gordon, unable to fight back, or is he too caught up in pacing himself under NASCAR’s season-long old system? Or, even worse, are the rules written so wildly that one of the sport’s best drivers is doomed to finish second while a circus-like gimmick plays out around him?

“I’m a little concerned where it could go with — just like last week we found out on pit road where the line is drawn,” he explained. “And when you cross over that line, I think that it could get to that on the racetrack.”

That line, in 2014 was defined as “push or be pushed back.” Keselowski’s aggressive move at Texas, a product of Gordon giving an opening was a message “clean” doesn’t mean “no contact, ever.” And with the title on the line, two turns left in a season it was Newman, not Gordon manipulating the system with one hard-fought position that gets him a Final Four spot over a guy who, on paper was clearly more deserving. Is it right? Is it wrong? All we know is it kept Gordon from advancing.

“You can never make everybody happy,” Newman said in defending his presence at Homestead – taking up a spot Gordon, Hendrick teammate Earnhardt or Keselowski deserved on paper. “If I was these guys that had wins after that first bracket and their wins didn’t mean anything anymore, I wouldn’t be happy. But I wasn’t one of those guys. [The Chase] played in my favor all the way through.”

Thirteen years later, Gordon’s waiting for the system to break his way. Or maybe he should be breaking more toward the system? It’s hard to tell. NASCAR’s playoff was designed to be a tale of two seasons, to intentionally make it easier for other drivers with a weaker regular season to topple the “number one seed.” Gordon’s fate is no different than top teams during most NCAA Basketball Tournaments; solid, on paper but one upset away from an afterthought. Five months of wins could be thrown out based on five awful minutes.

It’s the new NASCAR, for better or worse. Just try telling Ella and Leo, this Sunday how their Father, who might very well win Homestead is sitting at home with no title while a winless Newman, who ran well behind could sit at the head table above him in Las Vegas. It’s a new reality Gordon needs to adjust to while getting a chance to revisit his performance in the offseason.

He sure raced squeaky clean this season. Just like his shelf will look squeaky clean without a new trophy sitting front and center.

Share this article

28 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
kb

…oh boy.

Carl D.

“Or, even worse, are the rules written so wildly that one of the sport’s best drivers is doomed to finish second while a circus-like gimmick plays out around him?”

I can answer that question… Sadly, yes.

Ron Schwalbe

Good to know that the driver with the most season long wins can NOT be Champion, and …. the driver with the most season long accumulated points will NOT be either –????- Just exactly what WILL … this goofy, periodically score changing, slower lapped car rewarding, musical chairs farce determine ??

Bill B

Just how far NASCAR’s decision makers have their heads up their asses and how they have systematically turned this into less of a sport and more of a reality television show.

Bill B

While the chase format itself is a huge part of the problem, I still believe the fake cautions, wave arounds and lucky dogs are an even bigger issue. Look at last week. There were 14 cars on the lead lap by the half-way point, most of which were more than 1 lap down. Had it not been so easy for all those cars to get their lap back, even with the last lap spin Gordon would have only fell back to somewhere between 15th and 20th (assuming no one got their lap back without earning it on the track). That 9 points would have been huge.
Likewise with Logano being lapped and Hamlin being lapped twice and all being wiped clean by virtue of the lucky dog.
We can bitch about the new chase but that’s just the cherry on top. The entire rules are set up to artificially keep everything close until the last 20 laps of a race and then, assuming there are a couple of cautions in the last 30 laps, we have the double file restart to make sure everything gets jumbled up like someone just threw it all in a blender.

Budsudz

You are correct. The “pure” racing of the 80’s and 90’s was better. The entire race meant something and you battled to stay on the lead lap. The only difference was, you could race the leader back to the caution (not always safe, but caused a lot less damage to cars than double file restarts and the lucky dog) What other sport has a game-changer with the word “luck” involved in it? In effect, the first-loser is rewarded.
There also was no wave around. If you wanted to stay out on worn tires and the leader pitted, you lined up at the tail end of the lead lap, DIRECTLY in front of the leader. It was a much bigger gamble.
Plus, a driver who was faster was rewarded. Kevin Harvick could have lapped up to around 10th place on Sunday under the old rules. Hence, he could eliminate the weaker competition and have less challengers to face on the final restart. The Problem is that the pendulum has shifted so far from the norm, the old way is never coming back.

Bill B

Actually, if you look back before the wave around rule, it was extremely rare when anyone was lined up at the tail end of the lead lap. Maybe once every 5 races. They didn’t have the choice to stay out and not pit and be lined up at the tail end. The only time it happened was when there was a caution during a round of green flag pit stops and some guys got caught at the tail end of the lead lap. Now it has become an entitlement program to keep everyone on the lead lap no matter how bad you sucked during the first half of the race.

Capt Spaulding

Take the wave around and lucky dog rule out of the race and you would reduce the number of debris cautions, since they would no longer put NASCAR’s favorite of the day on the lead lap. Imagine what that would do to Danica’s average finish for the season.

John C.

As long as there are double file restarts there are going to be lucky dogs. Otherwise there is no way to get a lap back because you’re stuck at the rear.
What boggles my mind is that NASCAR does NOTHING to squelch the criticism of manipulating the ends of races. At the end of the Nationwide race they threw the caution because the 5 car ran out of gas on the backstretch. He got down to the apron and coasted into the pit. There was NO REASON to throw the caution. They couldn’t stand the fact that the Championship was going to be sewn up one race early and where going to give Smith all the opportunity to get ahead of Elliott if at all possible.

GinaV24

squelch the criticism? I think the fans are critical of all this because we are all aware that NASCAR manipulates things but NASCAR wants to pretend they don’t. Heck the drivers know they do it – remember Hamlin got fined for saying so out loud.

Pretty bad when the sanctioning body has to enforce silence with fines, rather than actual run a “clean” sport.

rascalmanny

Stop watching, stop going.

It’s the ONLY option for the fans.

GinaV24

rascal, that is what I plan to do for Homestead. I don’t care who the hell wins the crapshoot trophy now.

Upstate24fan

Us Gordon fans get our hearts ripped out for the second week in a row. Now it looks really bad for Alan Gustafson trying to change 4 tires on the 24 after the spin at Texas and losing a lap. If they had stayed on the lead lap they probably would have gained a few positions with fresher tires. In the end, the 24 team has a lot to be proud of. Likely Harvick or Logano will win the title next week and Newman and Hamlin won’t feel so good about their year. I just hope in 2015 Jeff adjusts well to the new rule package and is still competitive.

rb

You’re correct. They missed moving on by a point. They ultimately did control their own destiny the week before after the contact with Kes. If they had executed that pit stop correctly, they would still be in the championship.

danie shook

I m the biggest Gordon fan since 95 but its time for him to retire .With jimmie struggling this year this was jeff s best chance to get number five and he flat out didn’t get it done .
Those four wins including the brickyard and 22 top 10’s and 14 top 5s
don’t mean nothing if you don’t finish with a title .
Now look at him he s just the fifth best loser again , 14 years in a row .
PLEASE RETIRE I ll be dead before you ll ever win another championship again and I’m 46 years old .
all you do is disappoint me in the long run and this year even hurts more because you had the team .

tom

Here’s a thought: Gordon paid the price for racing aggressively at Texas. Had he backed off and let Keselowski have the spot, Gordon would have advanced to the final shootout. But racing aggressively cost Gordon 27 points, a much higher number than if he had played it safe at Texas and simply focused on finishing in the top 10.

Gordon’s ‘mistake’ was failing to recognize that his ‘goal’ wasn’t to win a given race, but rather to advance to the next round. All he had to do was finish ahead of four other drivers. With his 2nd place finish as Martisnville, all he had to do was play it safe and he would pretty much assured of advancing (think of it as a version of the Talledega strategy).

Put it this way: Newman advanced with a total of 27 points over the three races. With a 2nd place, all Gordon had to do was average a 12th place finish over the next two races and he was safely into Homestead. He could have done that sleeping.

It’s not a great system, but it’s the one that NASCAR put into place. Gordon and Gustaffson should have known better.

kb

..it seems your point being is very rarely is it one big thing, but a series of little things over time. That is reasonable but Kez and Bowyer not matter what, will be on the permanent hate list the rest of their lives for most fans of JG, regardless.

GinaV24

you betcha!

babydufus

yep. you can race as “clean” as you like.
just don’t expect to win any championships.
Just ask Jeff Burton.. or better yet Mark Martin.

Tony Stewart won his last one by racing his guts out, same as brad.
Johnson and knaus won theirs by outsmarting the system and certainly not by racing “clean.”
in fact who’s ever won one by racing “clean?”

RickP

Kenseth.

Don in CT

WWF on wheels.

GinaV24

So now Gordon is ineffective because he raced “clean” at Phoenix. Wow, guess Brian really did get what he wanted when he setup the crapshoot/demolition derby format.

I’ve seen Gordon use the bumper when he needed to – Rusty has never forgiven him for is the bump & run at Bristol, but usually he doesn’t just wreck people – except for Bowyer obviously, but people forget that happened after a lot of other prior incidents of rough racing with the 15 car that year that cost Gordon, including at the infamous race at Phoenix, that triggered Gordon to flip. Intellectually I know it was “wrong” to go out and wreck Bowyer, but emotionoally I still think he deserved it that day.

Even though this is really wrong from a sportsmanship point of view, I really hope that Larson manages to put ruin Newman’s day at Homestead. Oh wait, there is NO sportsmanship in NASCAR now, so they can all do what they want. Newman’s day ruined won’t change the fact that Gordon isn’t in the chase, but it will make me feel better. Before anyone jumps on my case, I don’t want Newman hurt, but by golly, I want him to NOT win the trophy.

Guess next year, we’ll see even more wrecking to win since that will be the new NASCAR way of getting a place in the chase. That will work until someone goes headfirst into the wall and dies like Dale Sr did. The pendulum can swing too far either way. Seems to me that fair competition would be better than wrecking is racing, but that’s just me. I had enjoyed watching Larson as a rookie race cleanly against people with a lot more experience than he had. That was fun. I’m sure Larson will learn from the lesson that he got from Newman and from watching Kez and start racing others in the “appropriate” way. It’s a shame IMO.

Maybe Gordon will have to decide if he wants to race in the “new” and unimproved NASCAR or retire. I had hoped that he’d get that elusive 5th (or 7th if not for the chase) this year and then retire. I wonder if he will think about that in the off season. I know I will.

Ohio Kart Racer

You’re all just a big bunch of whiners – just llike Jeff Gordon !!!

Cham

I hope NASCRAP gets the winless “champion” thye deserve in no neck Newman. It will once and for all put to rest any debate as to what a farce this once great sport has become.

dewayne

Gordon fan. Not watching. Hate the hamster, but hope he wins it all finishing 14th or whatever he is in points. I like Newman, hate that his move put Gorgon out. Maybe he can win the championship without winning a race. Don’t really care. Only been doing 3 to 5 races cup races, and all support races for 20 years, along with 15 or so traveling series races each year. who needs my ass in the stands, right? Remember, my money spends anywhere…..

Ross

As suggested, Gordon is driving “Mark Martin style” Mr. Clean . That is true, but only in the last few years and has won the same # of championships “NONE” as Mark Martin has. Jeff should go back to driving like he did in his early years and start winning Championships again, before its to late.

JohnQ

I’ve come to accept that the races are at least semi fixed and I’ve lost interest. I think I’m going back to baseball!

DTK

Go back and watch the end of the Texas race and you’ll see the real reason Jeff didn’t advance…. After spinning Alan calls for 4 tires instead of two. The crew SLOWLY goes to the right side and seems confused. Alan has to tell them to ‘Move It’. They end up changing only the right side tires before Jeff has to speed out on the cut left side tire to try to beat the leader. Who was the leader? Jimmie Johnson. Jimmie being the great teammate slows his pace to ensure Jeff stay on the lead lap – NOT. Instead Jimmie speeds up and locks Jeff a lap down. I could not believe it when I watched the video today. In the end if Jeff’s crew chief/crew and ‘teammate’ kept him on the lead lap he would have picked up SEVERAL spots in the last laps of the race and would have needed to beat Newman by several less points. Watch the video. Sad ending for Jeff – but his crew choked and his teammate screwed him at Texas.

Frontstretch