By Mike Mulhern
To their my-how-time-flies files, Jeff Gordon and Richard Petty just added another photograph, together, this one marking now a NASCAR milestone: “Neither one of us could believe it had been 15 years ago,” Gordon says of that quirk of history, the afternoon at Atlanta Motor Speedway when he made his first Cup tour start….and Petty made his last.
“It is pretty amazing, from where I stand, how much has gone on in my life those past 15 years. I was so young and naive and clueless as to what was ahead.”
And now Gordon is not only on track for another NASCAR championship but he’s also enjoying fatherhood: “There isn’t a moment—it doesn’t matter if it is three or four a.m.—that when I look at her I am not just in awe and amazement. Especially when she can look back at me.
“It is the coolest thing ever. I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t know how all that would happen. But it has been nothing more than a positive in my life…and any time positive things are happening in your life, usually it reflects positively on your career.”
And what a career since that first fall afternoon here back in 1992.
“Probably the coolest thing I carry with me was that driver’s meeting,” Gordon recalls. “It was very unique. Still to this day I don’t remember a driver’s meeting quite like that. It was all about Richard, and he spoke. I can’t really remember the things he said, but I remember his handing out money clips with an insignia of him with his cowboy hat and each starting position inscribed. I have one with 21.
“The track then was a lot different. We’d tested, and it went really well, we went pretty quick. But we didn’t qualify that well. Through the day the car was loose but really fast. I pushed a little too hard and crashed. It wasn’t long after that I remember seeing Richard in a ball of flames in turn three.
“It was memorable…but I can’t say it was all good memories.”
Today promises to be much different. Gordon is coming in to this 500 miler at the top of his game, and the top of the standings, with probably only teammate Jimmie Johnson between him and a fifth NASCAR championship. Unless Clint Bowyer can catch a few breaks and get back in the game, it’s a two-man chase now.
But will they coast, or will they race? The two have great records here, but things can get crazy at times, as fast as tires give up speed during typical 100-mile runs, and as ragged as pit road stops have been lately. (Tony Stewart probably lost any shot at the championship with his two pit road problems at Charlotte.)
So maybe it’s time for a different winner for a change. Maybe something odd, considering how odd the playoffs have been.
And one of the oddest things about this chase, perhaps, is the continuing TV ratings slump. Despite heavy promotion, all six playoff races have been off in viewers from last season. Last weekend’s stop at Martinsville was an unimpressive 3.7. That compares to NBC’s 4.7 in 2005 and 4.1 in 2006 for that event.
The TV marks for ABC to follow: NBC’s 4.6 in 2004, 4.7 in 2005, and 4.8 in 2006.
Greg Biffle is on the pole for the 1 p.m. start, and he and crew chief Greg Erwin have hit on some things lately, winning at Kansas City.
Kurt Busch, on the outside, is due to snap out of his slump.
Brother Kyle Busch may be the sleeper, along with Dale Earnhardt Jr., who desperately needs a confidence booster after so many blown engines. But then this track, the tour’s fastest 1-1/2-miler, is a notorious engine killer.
Kyle Busch is typically fast here, “but I’m horrible here, I’m terrible,” he insists. “It’s fun to run, and it’s cool. It’s fast, and you’re really on edge all the time. It’s white-knuckle racing. It’s kind of crazy sometimes.
“We don’t really run that great here for whatever reason. We’ll have two tires runs (two 100-mile runs) where we’ll be fast, and we’ll be running everybody over and going to the front…and after that it’s just like ‘What happened?’ We adjust something and we don’t make the right adjustment, or something happens.”
One thing to consider here – particularly for NASCAR officials to consider – is this ‘team orders’ stuff that Hendrick has at his command. Several times this year one Hendrick driver has deliberately pulled over to let a teammate pass, in order to get more points. Will Casey Mears and Kyle Busch get the ‘call’ to pull over for Gordon and Johnson…again?
Gordon concedes it’s a difficult subject: “We had a lot of conversations about that, because Casey was pretty uneasy about how that all happened at Dover.
“I appreciate his honestly and his competitiveness. He is having a great end-of-the-season, and that is important for them as a team going in to next year as well.
“We agreed there is a point that if it comes down to where you are racing—let’s use Casey as an example—him in the closing laps of a race, it shouldn’t be where you have to fight him. You shouldn’t have to fight him every inch, every corner. If you show your nose, it is obvious that you are faster, if you run him down from a straightaway behind, just maybe cut the guy a break.
“But don’t pull over and let him go, if he is a straightway behind you. That is not the intention. That is wrong. That will come back to haunt you.
“Now when we get down to Homestead, in the final laps of the race, and that position is going to win the championship for me or Jimmie or Kyle, then that might be a little different situation.
“Whether it is right or wrong, I don’t think anybody would not do that, or would not want that to happen for them, when there is that much on the line.”
Meanwhile it’s all academic to Tony Stewart, whose title bid died at Charlotte two weeks ago. He says he’s just out to get some wins now. And if Gordon and Johnson do hit a run of bad luck, and Stewart somehow gets back into contention, well, Stewarts says “It’s kind of a bad way to win a championship at this point in the year if we were to win it, because it means those guys have had to have some real bad luck…and that’s something you don’t wish on anybody.”
THE NASCAR NOTEBOOK
General Motors’ CEO Rick Wagoner has been talking with NASCAR executives about bringing ethanol-fuel into stock car racing, to make the sport ‘greener.’
Brent Dewar, GM vice president in charge of racing, says “We are guests at this party…but we’re also a partner, and we think this would be the right signal to send to America. We have to reduce our (foreign) dependency.
“We know they have a fuel partner (Sunoco), and we’re respectful of that. We’re hoping that when the time comes for a discussion of the fuel we can talk about that. What we have to do now is show them some of the technical learnings we’ve had with ethanol in other series.
“But it’s very do-able.”
Kyle Busch says he’s been following the Carl Edwards-Matt Kenseth brouhaha with interest. “If I had done that, I would have just gotten more hate mail than what normally comes in every week, I guess,” Busch says.
“But Carl will go through it and be fine. I’m sure people will forget about it here in the off-season.”
Making peace after a run-in isn’t easy, Busch says, “because you’re mad at them, so you want them to come to you, but they’re mad at you so they’re not going to come to you, they want you to go to them.
“We’re all a bunch of egotistical maniacs….at least that’s what (ital) Days of Thunder (close ital) says. I’m pretty much having to believe it now.”
Denny Hamlin had a run-in with teammate Tony Stewart at Daytona, and he knows what it’s like: “I’ve never been to a point where I was that angry. But I think we’ve all had our issues at times. As teammates, you expect your teammate to drive you a little bit different than what you expect of other guys. And when they don’t show you that courtesy, not necessarily that they have to, but it kind of fires you up and I think that’s a lot of the reason they had the problems they had.”
But Hamlin said the Edwards-Kenseth post-race deal “was no surprise to me.
“As drivers, we see sides to people that not a lot of people see. To me, that was typical Carl and typical Matt.
“Carl does a good job of staying calm on TV. But I’ve seen a side to Carl—and other guys out there—that is not so pleasant.
“Carl and I have had some issues in the Busch series. Last year he caught me by surprise the way he reacted.
“But we’ve also had 20 races good between us versus two bad ones.
“It depends the situation. I think that situation had boiled over a few weeks.
“With Tony it was the same deal: It finally comes to a head, and it’s real ugly.
“You try to model yourself after Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. They do a good job of racing hard, but still maintain a good relationship.
“Me and Tony have that relationship now, but it took an incident for that to happen.
“You’re likely to see the same thing with those two, that they’re closer after this.
“Sometimes it just takes letting it all out in the air before one realizes what the other expects.”