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Cup’s King Of The Road To Take Bow At The Glen

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 8 2015
Jeff Gordon's days of curb hopping will come to an end this weekend. None have done it better in NASCAR. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

Jeff Gordon’s days of curb hopping will come to an end this weekend. None have done it better in NASCAR. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

You don’t have to be eligible for social security to remember the days when the vast majority of NASCAR drivers dreaded driving on road courses. Dreaded them the way ill-prepared school children  dread being called upon in class.

bugopinionThe problem, of course, was that things like right turns, constant rev matching, elevation changes and plotting out braking zones  just were not in driver comfort zones for most NASCAR stars back in the ’80s and ’90s.

Then there was Jeff Gordon.

Gordon could actually make low-downforce, nose-heavy elephantine stock cars look graceful at some of the most technical road courses in North America. He was, absolutely debatably, the best road-racing NASCAR driver of his era.

It’s an era that will come to an end on Sunday when Gordon takes on the twisties for what appears to be one final time when he competes in the Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen International.

Gordon has the most road-course victories among Cup drivers – nine. That’s two better than Tony Stewart, who sits second on the list, and three better than such legendary road aces as Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace, Bobby Allison and Richard Petty.

Four times Gordon has won at an iconic Watkins Glen circuit that used to give Formula One drivers fits.

So, nurture or nature?

Probably both in Gordon’s case, but it all started with nurture, he says.  And the nurturing process go off to a rough start.

“I remember going to Sonoma the first time and turning the car over on its side in the tire wall,” Gordon said. “I felt like I was pretty lost.  The second year I really felt a big progression and then the third year, which I think is when I won my first road course race, I think in 1995 or 1996, everything just started to click.  We worked hard at it.  There is no doubt we worked hard at it.  That hard work paid off.”

 

Early on in the career, Gordon didn’t know where his career would take him. So, he cast a very large net. Snagged by that net was road racing.

“Prior to coming to NASCAR I was pursuing everything,” Gordon said Friday at The Glen. “If somebody gave me an opportunity to get in a race car or to go to a driving school then I was packing my helmet back and heading that way.  I did it up at Mosport (now known as Canadian Tire Motorsports Park) in Canada.  I did it with Skip Barber and I think after I started NASCAR I did the one out in Sonoma and I also did the one in Phoenix with Bob Bondurant.

“I’ve done a lot of those schools and then I drove a lot of different types of cars.  I remember driving a Super Vee out at Indianapolis Raceway Park before I ever got into NASCAR. I did some go kart racing too.  I didn’t do any shifting (in karts), but I did some go kart racing on road courses.  I mean I went to the IKF (International Kart Federation) Nationals and finished fourth in 1980 or something in a go kart.  It’s not like I didn’t have any road course experience whatsoever, but I never had it in a big car. I enjoyed the challenge.”

NASCAR drivers will tell you that a major key to having success on the road circuits is developing a genuine love for racing at The Glen and Sonoma.

No problem there for Gordon.

“I enjoyed it, even though I didn’t grow up road racing a lot.  I did enjoy it,” he said.

Gordon also said that pride played a role in his road-racing success. Many drivers go all blase when they talk about the importance of winning on road courses, but those are usually drivers who had not won at Sonoma or The Glen.

Because the fact is, success on the roads means plenty for drivers. It means they possess a bigger bag of skills than the mere roundy-round folks.

Gordon talked proudly about being Sprint Cup’s current road master.

“I think when you look at the drivers and teams that outsiders look at in our sport of who is at the top of the list,” he said, “I think if you can add a road course win to it, it separates you from the norm and puts you into an elite group.  When I look at my road course wins and all the different tracks that I’ve won at, I think it just kind of adds to the stats of putting me into a unique category that I’m very proud of.”

Gordon’s stats on road course have dipped in recent years. He hasn’t won at The Glen since 2001. But that’s not because he’s gotten worse on the roads. It’s because other drivers have gotten better on the twisties and because NASCAR rules have lessened the gap between the fastest cars and the mid-pack cars.

“The cars are very equal which makes the drivers look much more equal, but then you do have a deeper filed as well,” Gordon said.

“To me about late ’90s is when I saw everyone really putting a lot more focus and attention on them.  And it started bringing the whole level of competition up higher.  By early 2000, 2001 it seemed like most of the field was good on a road course.”

Gordon turned 44 years old last Tuesday. On Saturday, he proved that his road-racing skills have eroded little if at all as he qualified fifth fastest at The Glen.

On Sunday, he could easily prove that even in his final full season in Cup, Gordon is NASCAR’s king of the road.

 

 

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 8 2015
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