By Mike Mulhern
KANSAS CITY, Kansas
Jeff Gordon looks supremely at ease this weekend, his championship train is like moving with the inevitability of a runaway freight. So don’t stand in his way.
He starts today’s Lifelock 400 from the second row. But teammate Jimmie Johnson, who won the pole, crashed yesterday during final practice at Kansas Speedway and will have to start from the rear of the field in his backup car. So six of the top-10 here are men in the championship chase, all perhaps chastened by last week’s fiasco at Dover, where every title challenger had trouble, even winner Carl Edwards.
“I just lost it,” Johnson said. “But this track is wide and good…and I don’t have any worries about getting run over now.
“The car was kind of loose, and I thought it was coming to me, so I started opening up my entry into the corners…and it just got out from underneath me getting into turn three. We definitely didn’t need that.
“But the car we’ve got is the car we won California with.”
“It is hard to consider yourself the point leader when there are so few points that separate you and fourth, fifth or sixth,” Gordon insists. “It is so tight right now—other than the two or three guys who have had trouble (Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick)—it is like we started at New Hampshire.
“Dover wasn’t a great performance, but we survived. That was important. Dover was one of those tracks we were concerned about. Getting through that race was really big for us.”
That may seem ironic, since car owner Rick Hendrick’s men have won six of the year’s 13 car-of-tomorrow events. But Jack Roush’s guys may now have finally caught up.
Gordon, despite four wins this year, calls the car-of-tomorrow “challenging enough. We showed that the last couple of weeks. We had it working well in New Hampshire and not very well at Dover.
“The Roush cars have really got their high-bank program figured out for the new car. The Childress cars, especially Clint Bowyer, and us seem to have the flatter tracks figured out.
“I snicker a little bit when I hear how well positioned (Edwards) is now…because leading in to New Hampshire it was Clint Bowyer-Who? Then after New Hampshire it was ‘Wow! Look at this guy.’ Then we go to Dover, and the Roush cars run good, and all of a sudden they are in position to be the teams to beat for the championship.
“It changes every week.
“To me nobody is ‘positioned’ above anybody else at this point. We have to run another three, four or five races before you are really going to find out who the team to beat is.”
Johnson’s late season rally to the title last year gives hope to both Kurt Busch and Hamlin.
“What Jimmie did last year was pretty extraordinary, but you have to take into account what the other guys contributed to it,” Gordon said. “Not only did he come back and perform, but also those other guys had problems.”
Like Gordon himself, three bad races, with crashes and blown engines. “To me, we lost the championship as much as Jimmie went out there and won it,” Gordon said.
“Everybody is probably going to have at least one bad race. I don’t know if the winner is going to have more than one.”
But Talladega next week is worrisome to Gordon, particularly the bump-drafting, that he has complained about for some time.
“When I first started in Cup, you almost couldn’t bump-draft,” Gordon said. “The way the air worked, when you closed in on a car, it was almost like a bubble between the bumpers. You would have a lot of momentum, but you never really got through that bubble.
“Then we started figuring out how to make our bumpers stronger, to take those bumps.
“That is one concern I have right now with this car—while the bumpers are big and they line up, they are soft. So we are asking NASCAR to allow us to put in some extra bars there.”
More worrisome, though, Gordon says, with agreement from Jack Roush, is that NASCAR’s penchant for unusual and unexpected penalties could play a role in who wins this year’s Nextel Cup championship.
The 25-point penalty on Carl Edwards is one such case.
“There are all kinds of rumors going through the garage area right now that they lowered their car throughout the race and expected the shocks to hold them up,” Gordon says of Edwards. “I don’t believe that stuff because these things happen all the time.
“NASCAR has to try to determine what those penalties should be. I don’t think they should be the same all the time.
“To me, it doesn’t matter if you’re high or low or what it is, there is going to be a penalty coming.
“But I just wonder if NASCAR really wants that to happen. Do we want to get to Miami-Homestead and the winner of the championship comes through inspection and he’s an eighth of an inch low and is that 25 points? Does he win the championship or not?”