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Ingram: Gordon Hits The Rim At Phoenix

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, April 13 2010

Jeff Gordon is edged by Ryan Newman late in the Cup race at Phoenix. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief – on a Tuesday:

There’s a recurring thought that keeps reminding me of a basketball game in the middle of Sprint Cup races. And it’s not a Denny Hamlin story. And there are no knee injuries.

There are championships involved and it’s one opponent versus another, more like drag racing than NASCAR. I keep getting the impression that in the comparison between teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon that the story looks a lot like the Duke versus Butler game for the NCAA championship.

Johnson is a dominant player who has lots of offensive firepower. Gordon races more like he’s on a defensive strategy. Keep it close, then try to win at the end.

I bring this up because it’s a situation that appears to be changing. The older, veteran driver is beginning to look more like his younger teammate – the one who has won four straight championships out of the same Hendrick Motorsports shop. Gordon is beginning to look and act more like a driver with flames on the side of his car.

He was mad at himself for spinning his tires on the final re-start at Phoenix. He was mad a Matt Kenseth for the bump-and-run on the final re-start at Martinsville. At Las Vegas earlier in the year, he was mad about the situation his own No 24 Hendrick Motorsports team found itself in.

“I was mad at Las Vegas about two tires versus four tires and Jimmie Johnson driving four tires,” said Gordon while recalling a loss to Johnson in the season’s third event. “I had plenty of time to think about it while that race was winding down.”

“We just messed up here,” he said of the desert race Saturday night at Phoenix. “And so, you know, with the last couple (of races) I felt like they were ours to lose, and we lost it. So those are frustrating. But, you know, I think we have a lot of positives that are happening right now. And I certainly feel like the fight is there in the whole team. And I feel like we’re fired up about this season and the way things are going and the way our cars are running.”

There was a time recently when I worried about Gordon falling into the rut that sometimes beckons even the greatest of drivers in the later stages of their career. They keep telling themselves they are answering the bell, matting the accelerator and pushing the ragged edge. But for some aging stars, time begins to run out without many results to show for it.

Bobby Allison distinguished himself, in part, by winning the Daytona 500 at age 50 – beating his son Davey in the process. At the time of his career-ending accident at Pocono, one of those oddball wrecks that could happen to any driver, he was still as fiery and determined as ever to prove he was better than everybody on the track – or anybody who had ever driven a stock car. Needless to say, Dale Earnhardt Sr. never let up while trying to win the elusive eighth championship. In other racing fields, Mario Andretti comes to mind as a driver who raced as hard at age 50 as at age 20.

Gordon, now 38, is not old according to the calendar, but old relative to the fact he’s been racing since starting at the age of five in quarter midgets. Gordon was older than either Kyle Busch or Joey Logano when he started in the Sprint Cup full-time at age 21, but he was very young by the standards of the time. Earnhardt Sr. soon picked up a phrase first sarcastically used by his crew chief Andy Petree and started calling Gordon “Wonder Boy” due to his youth.

The two drivers gradually developed mutual admiration off the track because Gordon always stepped up to the same tactics employed by “The Intimidator” when they were on the track and had the car control to match as well. The duo also traded notes on marketing projects like souvenir sales and sometimes joined forces on that front. But on the track there was no quarter, such as the 1997 Daytona 500. En route to winning his first 500 before Earnhardt Sr. won his first, for instance, Gordon’s move at Turn 2 left The Man in Black riding on his roof headed down the back straight.

I’m not suggesting that now Dale Sr. is gone Gordon is no longer racing in a style that would impress The Man in Black, who has moved Upstairs. The racing is as intense and close quarter as it’s ever been in the Sprint Cup. But I wonder if Gordon chooses to hold his cards more often these days. At Martinsville, for example, Gordon spent 30 laps behind Matt Kenseth, he said, choosing to be held up rather than find a way past.

“He ran in the back of me earlier in the race,” said Gordon, “and I was like, OK. And then he made sure that it took me about 30 laps to pass him. And I tried to race him clean.”

I’m not suggesting that Gordon should have used his bumper on Kenseth at Martinsville to get past sooner. Rather, I wonder if Johnson would have found his way past sooner. Using the basketball anaology, Johnson brings more offensive firepower by using a variety of tactics, it seems to me, compared to Gordon, who relies on keeping his car intact, not taking chances and keeping the race close enough to bring strategy into play at the end.

Commenting on a very close national championship game that had many believing Butler maybe should have been the NCAA titlist, one of my friends observed that Duke was the better team. “If Duke and Butler play 10 games,” he said, “Duke wins eight or nine of them.”

That seems to be pretty close to the ratio of Johnson victories these days compared to Gordon, who heads to Texas looking for his first victory since last year’s trip resulted in a lone star of a victory in 2009. A rimmed-out shot that goes in here, a better re-start there and Gordon would have almost as many victories as Johnson this year. But the results are what counts, not a contested half-court shot that almost went in at the buzzer.

Quote of the Week: This comment comes from Jeff Gordon, when asked after the Phoenix race about the importance of decisions by crew chiefs in the late stages of Sprint Cup races.

“And I think that it’s a product of track position, being so much more critical. These cars, I mean, they have a whole grid that sits on these cars. You really can’t do a whole lot to make one car, you know, dramatically faster. You’ll see guys hit their setup and be a lot faster or a guy on two tires versus four tires.

“But when you put everybody out there on the same tires, track position I mean, tonight I had a good car. I couldn’t pass anybody. That was the thing that impressed me about Jimmie as he came up through there. He could get by guys. I had a good car I just could not pass guys, and I was just real loose getting in and getting off. And to me that makes the role of the crew chief and those calls that much more important.”

Quote of the Week II: When Juan Pablo Montoya dominated the early stages of the Sprint Cup race at Phoenix, it appeared Chip Ganassi’s team might have a shot at a unique racing triple this weekend after his team won the Grand-Am Rolex Series race at Barber Motorsports Park earlier in the day. But Montoya suffered a familiar problem of leading early and fading late.

Said Ganassi on Sunday before his drivers Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon took to the track at Barber, “I’m thinking about two big wins in one season.”

He has a chance to become the first team owner to win the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500 in one season.

See ya! …At the races.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, April 13 2010
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