By Mike Mulhern
Jeff Gordon and new teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. are getting to know each other, like long-lost brothers, and if what each has rubs off on the other, this could be a very difficult season for car owner Rick Hendrick’s rivals….as if they needed anything else to worry about.
Gordon, trying to beat a cold before Daytona’s SpeedWeeks kicks off, says he’s comfortable so far with how NASCAR’s new winged car is working, during this week’s critical tests at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and California Speedway.
“As time went on, and we got more rubber on the track, we started to figure out this newer car on this track,” Gordon said of the Monday-Tuesday testing at Bruton Smith’s Las Vegas track. “You’re trying to answer questions, but the bottom line is you’re always trying to find speed, ways to go faster.
“I was optimistic coming in. This time last year we had a new track surface (at repaved Las Vegas) and a new tire (roundly criticized by drivers for being rock-hard, making for treacherous racing), and we were slipping and sliding all over the place. I was anxious to see what would happen, especially with the weather (very windy and wet).
“But the car was very comfortable. I was very happy with it.”
Carl Edwards posted the quickest speeds early Tuesday, at 184.256 mph, just ahead of Toyota’s David Reutimann and Kyle Busch. Ford’s Matt Kenseth was also fast, along with Toyota men Tony Stewart and Brian Vickers. Gordon himself was eighth on Tuesday’s chart. But late in the day Dodge’s Juan Pablo Montoya surprised everyone with an even faster lap, at 186.761 mph, faster than Kasey Kahne’s track record of 184.856 mph set last season.
But it’s Gordon’s blossoming relationship with Earnhardt that may be the big story of the early season.
“He’s doing very well, and I’m extremely impressed,” Gordon says. “Daytona is Daytona, and we know he’s going to be good there. But he was fast today (at Las Vegas), and I feel he and (crew chief) Tony Eury Jr. are a great asset to our organization. I’ve had a lot of fun working with him so far. He’s fit right in.”
And Gordon insists he’s not a bit worried about being upstaged by his new teammate: “Come on, man. It’s Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“Let’s be honest—if you’re not realistic about the fact he’s the most popular guy, and the guy who gets the most media attention…that would be the case whether he’s on your team or any other. But you treat him as if he’s just one of us.
“We don’t treat him like he’s in this hierarchy or anything. He’s a racer.
“He’s been very humble and appreciative about working with us.
“It’s no secret that last week at Hendrick Motorsports he had the biggest crowd. That’s just part of it.
“As long as we focus on doing our jobs behind the wheel and working as best as we can as teammates, we’re going to get the benefits he brings. And also, hopefully, he makes our team rise to the occasion.
“To me, it’s even more incentive to go out there and be competitive.”
So what to expect at Las Vegas and California in the season’s second and third events, the debut of the car-of-tomorrow at high-speed intermediate tracks?
“It’s a little early,” Gordon says. “The groove started widening out, and that was improving things. We have to have multiple-groove race tracks with this car.
“Except for a short-track, where you can bump and bang and move guys out of the way, at any other track you’ve got to have multiple grooves,” Gordon says. “This track (Vegas) had a really nice outside groove down turns one and two the last time we were here, and a little bit in turns three and four. This time the groove started out right around the bottom, but as the day went on it started widening out.
“I think we’ll see that in the race, so that’s a good thing.
“This car punches a big hole in the air. So it’s going to be tough to ride in right (tight) behind the guy in front of you.
“But the side-by-side seems to be excellent.
“The draft down the straight is really good.
“I’m hoping those things create some great passing. I’m optimistic. From the first time I drove this car in Michigan (a year ago, when Gordon protested vigorously it was not yet a prime-time stocker), we’ve come such a long way—teams with the set-ups.
“If the drivers aren’t comfortable, they’re not going to race hard.
“So I think you’re going to see it progress every race as each year goes on.”