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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Friday Faceoff: Panic Time for Jeff Gordon?

The summer stretch is coming to a close and Jeff Gordon still hasn’t won a race. Is it time for the No. 24 team to click the panic button?

Aaron Bearden, Assistant Editor: No, the No. 24 team shouldn’t hit the panic button just yet. Despite its struggles, the team is sitting in position to make the Chase on points. It’s teammate Kasey Kahne that’s returning to his already-worn panic button from last season. Jeff Gordon should be in the Chase and can probably even make his way through the first round without a victory. Round two is where this team will find itself desperate for a victory.

Zach Catanzareti, Contributor: Yeah, I think so. Sure, Gordon has had his typical bad luck, but there has been so many days he’s had nothing go incredibly wrong and, yet, nobody mentions his name. Last year at this time he had eight top 5s compared to this year’s three, and a few wins to this year’s none. He’s looking solid for making the Chase, but the key word there is “making.” He’ll make it, but I’m not sure how long he’ll last – assuming he doesn’t pull a Ryan Newman, which I think he could do. The expectations were high coming in, with a great 2014 and the determination for Jeff to go out on a high note, but this performance just isn’t up to snuff to win a race.

Matt McLauglin, Senior Writer: If they haven’t hit the panic button by now someone is asleep at the wheel. Rather than leaving fans to wonder how many races and potentially championships Gordon might have been able to add to his stats had he not left the sport at such a young age, as probably was intended, it’s now a question in some folks’ minds why he stayed on beyond his prime.

Clayton Caldwell, Contributor: I think there is a cause for concern, because that No. 24 team is nowhere close to where it needs to be to win races. In recent weeks the team has underperformed, and even when it shows flashes of coming out of it, the team shoots itself in the foot. Baring a major collapse, Gordon’s going to make the Chase, however I don’t think we’ll see him get very far. Hendrick Motorsports needs to find some horsepower if it wants to win another championship.

Mark Howell, Senior Writer: My take on the woes of the No. 24 team is that it’s Darlington or nothing. Gordon runs well at Richmond, but I see a solid run at the Lady in Black as the best chance for Gordon to make the Chase. What frosts my flakes is the overall notion that if it weren’t for NASCAR’s new take on the Chase circa 2004, Gordon and team would be having a shot at their ninth Sprint Cup championship. As it is, 90 wins and four titles is nothing to scoff at, but it’ll be a shame if the No. 24 team is on the outside looking in during the final 10 races of 2015. This weekend at Darlington is Gordon’s best last chance.

Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: Yes, it’s time. Not only is Gordon not performing, but he’s in danger of bringing his teammates down as well if too much focus is on him and not on their Chase bids. Does Gordon need to win? Nope. He has nothing more to prove; he’s the best of his era and one of the best of all time. Still, it would be great to see him go out at the top of his game.

The Southern 500 returns to Labor Day weekend for the first time since 2003, with lots of fanfare. Will the race live up to the attention it’s been getting?

Caldwell: I think the race will live up to expectations because of the new rule package. We saw a good race at Kentucky with the same rule package, and now Goodyear has brought tires to the racetrack that will fall off and make for some outstanding racing. I’m a big believer in the low-downforce package and that the tires have been too hard in recent years. All that mixed into one will make for some great racing.

Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: Absolutely; everything about the race is harkening back to a time when things made sense and was a sunnier time in both motorsports and the country in general. Not everything needs to be about the Chase 36 weeks a year; this is about what the core fans remember, what they’ve been begging for and why there was such ill will when Darlington was dispatched for Auto Club Speedway and then Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Labor Day classic. The coolest paint schemes, the best announcers and, oh, a low-downforce package with a grippy track-specific tire. It might not be Kurt Busch vs. Ricky Craven on the last lap in 2003 this weekend, but it will be an improvement over what we’ve come to expect on Labor Day lately.

Joseph Wolkin, Assistant Editor: It had better live up to expectations. If it doesn’t, critics will certainly add their two cents. But with the low-downforce aero package combined with awesome paint schemes and the return to racing on Labor Day at Darlington, it will likely be one of the best races of 2015.

Phil Allaway, Senior Editor: I really hope so. NASCAR needs a good race Sunday night, so does Darlington Raceway and the drivers as well. Regardless of what happens, it will be interesting to watch. There might be more give up over the course of a run in Sunday night’s race than in any race since the track was repaved for 2008. We’ve got unknowns and humid weather.

Catanzareti: 100% absolutely. Darlington – to me, at least – has always been a great race. Not only the prestige and history, but the actual sight of seeing the cars hugging the walls and turning them from white to black by lap 50 is very unique. The style and nature of passing at Darlington is one-of-a-kind and is very interesting to watch play out. It’s just a cool track. Throw in the low-downforce setup and all the downright awesome things NASCAR and NBC are doing to bring us back to the good ol’ days – minus the two cars on the lead lap thing, of course – and it will be quite the show.

Lots of teams are running throwback paint schemes at Darlington. Which one do you like best and what others would you like to see?

McLaughlin: Some of the retro schemes are well done and others are head scratchers. I’m not sure I quite get the retro Million Dollar Bill scheme (on this, the 30th anniversary of an event that helped put stock car racing on the map) with the different colors. I’d love to see a paint scheme based on Davey Allison‘s old Havoline scheme, the earlier one with the white nose, the black rear and the red and gold stripes, but not if it it’s purple-mauve-silver and pink. And I’d love to see a simple scheme like Tim Richmond‘s old Folgers car, but they don’t paint racecars like that anymore. And they don’t make drivers like Richmond anymore either, for that matter.

Howell: My favorite is Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and the David Pearson/No. 17 paint scheme. A PR photo of Stenhouse and his car showed Danica Patrick‘s boyfriend wearing a throwback-style firesuit as well. Stenhouse’s uniform was reminiscent of the old Hinchman firesuits commonly seen during the 1970s and early 1980s. I used to envision myself rocking one during my never-to-be modified and sportsman career. This weekend will provide some very cool flashbacks, but the No. 17 is my personal choice for best in show.

Allaway: So many throwbacks to choose from. At this point, my favorites are Kasey Kahne’s All-Star Racing No. 5, Kyle Larson‘s No. 42 Mello Yello Chevrolet and either Clint Bowyer‘s Buddy Baker tribute car or Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Valvoline Chevrolet. Also, as for Austin Dillon‘s No. 3: RCR was supposed to run that scheme on Robby Gordon‘s No. 31 as part of a special collection of schemes celebrating RCR’s 35th Anniversary in 2004.  However, it was switched to a silver scheme when the weekend came around. As for what I’d like to see, it’s a little hard to say. You get much beyond 1992 and there really isn’t all that much that could be considered iconic left.

Henderson: You want me to choose ONE? I love them all! Seriously, someone needs to stand in the garage and point and laugh at anyone who doesn’t have one! I’d have loved to see the old Havoline scheme back, and also the green Interstate Batteries machine in which Bobby Labonte won his title.

Bearden: The correct answer is yes. I love all of them, ranging from the throwbacks to NASCAR yesteryear, i.e. Trevor Bayne’s 1990s Mark Martin throwback or Kyle Petty… Err… Larson’s sick Mello Yello scheme, to schemes referencing greats from other series, such as Joey Logano’s Mario Andretti-based scheme. Nearly three-fourths of the field are decked out in special schemes, making for a dream (or nightmare) for diecast collectors worldwide. However, the nod for best scheme has to go to either Bowyer or Stenhouse for their beautiful, old-school schemes.

Wolkin: I’m really in love with Alex Bowman‘s car, which is designed like Tom Baldwin‘s modified from the good ‘ol days. Any Richard Petty STP scheme for Aric Almirola is always awesome, and so is the Harry Gant tribute on Mike Bliss‘s Hillman Racing machine. But my favorite has to be Jeb Burton‘s scheme, dedicated to his father, Ward Burton. It’s rather disappointing that Hendrick didn’t come with an awesome scheme for Gordon instead of the ugly 3M design. It would have been cool to see him do what Martin did in his final year with Roush and use some of his old schemes.

Both the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck series had standalone road-course races this weekend, and lots have called for more standalones for both series. Based on the races we’ve seen this year, does the size of the audience justify adding a few more?

Howell: I think audience size is less of a factor to consider than the overall quality of the competition. That said, I felt the road course events last weekend were a much-needed addition to both schedules. The advance buzz around both races was strong, the competition was exciting and the point battles became a topic of conversation come Monday morning. I’m highly in favor of more standalone races on road courses in both series. They’d be a positive addition to the NASCAR calendar.

Henderson: I think it’s less a matter of enough fans going as it is whether venues can afford them. Heck, Martinsville doesn’t run the NXS because the track doesn’t make any money after the sanctioning fees. It would be great to see them, particularly as far away as possible from the Cup Series to prevent the double-dippers, but it has to be feasible for the tracks.

McLaughlin: Clear this question up for me. Are we talking about the NXS standalone race won by a Cup regular or the Truck race won by a driver Gibbs has already said he’s putting in a Cup car part-time next year? Hell yes there needs to be more standalone races to help develop new talent as they are intended to be not shooting fish in a barrel for Cup guys who don’t have Harleys to ride on Saturdays. But then nobody will watch those races. When’s the last time you saw a PGA junior tournament on TV? And if you get MLB AAA games on TV you are definitely paying too much for cable or live in a Third World nation. Like Allentown. 

Wolkin: This is an absolute must. It’s going to be difficult in the NXS, but spreading them throughout the year would be better than putting three in one month, I think. Adding one late in the year would be fun, swapping it with one of the cookie-cutter tracks. In the Truck Series, however, the competition is great at road courses. Bring them over to Road Atlanta or Virginia International Raceway and you have another one-of-a-kind race.

Allaway: NASCAR would have to decrease the sanctioning fees in order to make it more feasible for tracks to host these standalone events as a start. Also, these standalone events should be the marquee events for each series. The Camping World Truck Series has something good going on with the Mudsummer Classic at Eldora each year. The NXS needs its own marquee event. It doesn’t have to be a dirt race, but it needs to be something that NASCAR can point to and say, “This race weekend belongs to the Xfinity Series.”

Pugliese: If they’re run on the same day as two-for-one events, absolutely; no need to belabor these shows for two days. Also, more road courses, please. Anybody who thinks watching an intermediate parade drone on for two hours is better racing than what we’ve seen on the twisties this year is either drunk or getting there.

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Bill B

“it’s now a question in some folks’ minds why he stayed on beyond his prime”… Really Matt?

He is past his prime by definition (most would say 25-35 statistically). I believe he could stick around for another 3 to 5 years and, depending on how NASCAR’s ever changing racing package is configured, still perform at a high level, win some races and make the chase most years. Championships and dominating seasons would probably take a miracle. With that in mind I think he made the right call with this being his last season. He doesn’t need the money. His mark on the sport has been made. He has nothing left to prove. His best days are definitely behind him.
So what’s your appraisal of Tony Stewart? … he should be in a retirement home?
What does your appraisal of Gordon say about all those lower in the points who are younger? … they don’t even belong in the cup series?

Tim S.

Agreed, Bill B. I don’t like Gordon and never have, but if one season is the difference between prime years and being washed up, then boy oh boy, men like Earnhardt the Elder should have retired after that winless 1997 season, and Junior after 2011, and the list goes on.

Bill B

I agree with you but have to point out that, sadly, and in hindsight, Earnhardt should have retired after that winless 1997 season. That is one of the reasons I fully support Gordon’s decision to retire even though he could continue. In some ways staying in this dangerous game too long is like sticking around for an extra round of Russian roulette when there is no reason to.

DoninAjax

Tell that to Harry Gant.

Carl D.

Harry Gant was a class act, and when he was done racing, he walked away and never came back. I doubt he would even recognize today’s Nascar.

Richie

Gant’s a little different case all together, he didn’t make his first Winston Cup start until he was 33 years old and didn’t race the series full time until he was 39. In this day and age, people would be questioning why he hasn’t retired after running his first race!

GinaV24

Matt Mc – I think you are so wrong on that assessment of Gordon. Hey would I like to see them running better and winning races in his final season, you bet. But to say that this season defines his legacy is not in the least bit true. His overall statistics for his entire career will define his legacy and that is that he is one of the best ever in the sport.

As Bill B and Tim S also said in their comments, there are a lot of other drivers who have been struggling as well this season and who also struggled in their careers.

MPM

Listen if I caused all this hullabaloo above and below (and long time readers know I’m the shrinking violet type that typically won’t say anything that might upset someone) it wasn’t my intent in this case. No one is doubting Gordon’s legacy. 92 wins and 4 titles ensure that. My point is (and it was a bit of a run on sentence so I might be at fault in not communicating it better) is this isn’t what Jeff, Hendrick or his fans envisioned as Jeff’s Going Away party. And let’s look at some numbers. Last title: 2001, 14 years ago. Yeah, blame the Chase but it is what it is. Last back to back wins: Talladega and Charlotte fall of 2007m, eight years ago. Gordon won 10 times in 1996 and 1997 and 13 (!) times in 1998. That’s 33 wins (Hey, I used my calculator. He hasn’t won that many races combined in every season from 2003 to present. He went winless in 08 and 10. Last year Gordon had a good season and won four times. Back in the late 90s everyone would have thought Jeff had a terrible year if he “only” won four races. 3 top 5 finishes in 2015? Let’s extrapolate and round up and say he’s on pace for six this year. Gordon has never had less than 7 top 5s any year in his fulll time career including his 1993 rookie season. He’s had at least ten in all but 3 of those seasons.
So when you’re sitting there in the stands in your 24 gear and some new fan in a Chase Elliott shirt says “What’s the big deal about this Gordon guy?” you’ll know how we felt in our Earnhardt and Elliott shirts back in the 90s. And your job is to educate rather than berate. Or you could just dump a beer over his head.

DoninAjax

If the tires fall off, Johnson can’t handle it and will complain and goodbye tires that fall off. You can bet that the tires won’t fall off during the chase.

Dan

Hopefully nothing happens (blown tire, hits the wall, other equipment failure, etc. all possibilities) in the next 2 races that keeps Gordon out of the Chase. Because if Kyle Busch running less races makes the Chase and Gordon doesn’t that’s going to be pretty damn embarrassing for a retiring driver that’s ,supposedly, still in his prime. Remember Gordon was and in some cases still is the face of NASCAR to many.

JohnQ

I’ve long since given up on anything resembling honest evaluation by the puppet racing press. Gordon is a great driver that has had a Hall of Fame career. The question the racing press will never find the primary sexual characteristics to honestly discuss is; Given the steady decline in interest will a large number of the remaining fan base retire with him?

BigAir199

Anyone saying that this year will define Gordon’s legacy is pretty ignorant to say the least. Gordon was quite clear that he would have retired 3 or 4 years ago had Rick not talked him out of it until they could find a replacement driver. Gordon is tired of Brian France and his debacle of a Chase! It has robbed him of at least 2 championships and lets not forget Gordon was brought up on being a consistent driver and chasing championships that reward consistency. He finally gets a rules package that he can adapt to and then they go and change it again. He proved last year that he can still drive with the best but the fire is almost gone thanks to Brian France. You can see it in Gordon’s eye’s every time they take his pic, he is just tired of it. I believe he will take some time off and be a commentator but you will see him participate in other races such as the 24hrs of Daytona. He’s a legend, give him the respect he has earned Nascar!

Carl D.

Nobody is picking a favorite for the race this week? My pick… Kurt Busch had one slip away in 2003, this week he gets his revenge on the Lady in Black.

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