Robby Gordon may be NASCAR’s top rain-racer….will that help him at Watkins Glen? (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
If Tony Stewart thinks becoming a NASCAR owner-driver will be any panacea next season – even with hefty support from General Motors and Chevy team owner Rick Hendrick – maybe he should drop by Robby Gordon’s hauler or motorcoach and listen for a while.
Gordon gave up a solid job as winning driver for top-notch GM owner Richard Childress four years ago in order to set up a NASCAR team of his own and be his own boss. But he’s still winless on the Cup tour since, and prospects for winning, well, this weekend’s stop at Watkins Glen may be the best shot Gordon has this season to snap that long losing streak.
And there are signs that Gordon, typically upbeat and optimistic about his life on the stock car tour and in those wild off-road events, is getting beaten down by the winds of fate that have been battering him pretty hard lately.
First, there was the Dakar disaster. That January off-road race has been a showcase for Gordon off-season the last few years, and with major GM support he was banking on kicking off this season with something splashy over there. Then the organizers of that event decided terrorists threats were too serious and they cancelled the event. That left Gordon holding the bag. And that substitute event through Romania and Hungary was no make-up.
Then he went through a bad run of luck in the opening weeks of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season. That eighth in the Daytona 500 may have seemed promising, particularly after that NASCAR penalty shocker, but Gordon didn’t score a top-10 again until Daytona’s 400 just a few weeks ago. Heck, Gordon only managed one top-20 during that dismal stretch.
Is Robby Gordon really finding it harder to smile this season? (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Sponsors are hard to come by this season, and Gordon has lost out big-time, forced to run an unsponsored black paint scheme more times than he expected. Now he’s under the gun to get Jim Beam back as sponsor for 2009….and how well Gordon performs this weekend at Watkins Glen may be key.
Gordon swept Sonoma and the Glen in 2003 while driving for Childress, and the case can be easily made that he made a major mistake leaving the Winston-Salem car owner to pursue a career as owner-driver.
And Gordon may well have made a big mistake in leaving the Chevrolet camp. Last year he was with Ford, but the big story there was car owner Jack Roush taking Gordon’s crew chief, Greg Erwin. This year he jumped to Dodge just days before SpeedWeeks opened….and NASCAR ripped him for $100,000 for having the wrong bumper the first day. He did win an appeal of a points-deduction too, but he’s still just barely hanging in the top-35 – that’s the cutoff for having a guaranteed starting spot in each Sunday’s field.
Gordon has yet to really squelch all those complaints. And he’ll be 40 for next season’s Daytona 500 – not a doomsday milestone by any means, but Gordon needs to start making things happen.
And if Gordon can’t make something big happen at the Glen this weekend….
For those who want to follow Gordon’s uphill quest, he’ll have an in-car ESPN camera Sunday, and he’ll be one of NASCAR’s DirecTV HotPass picks (channels 793 and 798).
Hopefully none of that TV equipment will blow up – like it did at the Glen a few years back, in a bizarre incident that forced him to bail out of his smoke-filled car while on the run toward victory.
Now that’s more like it, Robby. Hey, this is supposed to be fun…even if you do have to rustle up from $22 million to $30 million to play the NASCAR game (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)
“I obviously look forward to the road courses all season and view them as our best opportunities to shine,” Gordon says. “We tested Road Atlanta last week and have spent the last few weeks perfecting our cars for this weekend’s races. I feel really good about this weekend and think we have a legitimate shot of being in victory lane Saturday and Sunday.
“Watkins Glen could be the race we’ve been looking forward to…and the start of something big for our team.
“We have probably a one-in-five or 1-in-10 shot of winning. We put a lot of effort into our road racing effort. This is something I’ve done for 15 years now and I have a lot of experience road racing.”
But the bottom line is Gordon needs to line up big sponsorship for next season. The benchmark is about $30 million; that’s the budget half a dozen top NASCAR Cup teams have to work with. And the bare minimum, according to car owner Felix Sabates, is $22 million.
That’s a lot of money for anyone to try to persuade a company to spend in this sport, particularly on a team that is still winless.
So it may be over-the-top for anyone to suggest Gordon needs to be making plans to expand to a second team. Single-car teams, to be frank, don’t have a chance in NASCAR these days. Even multi-car teams struggle, like Chip Ganassi can attest.
But maybe Gordon can get lucky and put together something for a second team, because it takes at least a two-car operation even to have a prayer in this sport.
Robby Gordon (7) needs some monster sponsorship for 2009. Here in Sonoma he leads the field as Tony Stewart (20) drives off the track. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR)
“We still haven’t won with one car…but this weekend’s race hasn’t happened yet either,” Gordon says.
“It’s important to make one car run good first. And we’ve been able to stay inside the top-35.
“But we’d like to position ourselves to win races. A second car is going to help in that. The thing is ‘Who’s going to pay for it, how are you going to do it, and what sponsors are going to be involved in it?
“Obviously sponsors want to be involved with a team that can win races…and I look at this weekend as an opportunity of putting our team in victory lane,” Gordon said, with a trace of panic perhaps. “There have only been three teams this year in victory lane. So if we could pull it off, that would be big.
“I don’t do this out of my own pocket. If I had to pay a driver, I’d probably be in trouble. But because I am the driver and the owner, we can do a little bit of give-and-take and get through, like we’re doing now.”
Robby Gordon can wish…..(Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)
The rain at Montreal last weekend? Gordon clearly has to be politically correct at the moment, because of his tenuous fight for sponsorship. And that may be chaffing for a guy who is one of the sport’s most outspoken and most volatile.
Gordon wouldn’t bite when pressed about complaints that NASCAR shouldn’t have gone with rain tires at Montreal, for safety reasons as much as anything.
“It looked to me like everybody enjoyed it,” Gordon said diplomatically. “The biggest problem they had was the window fogging up.
“The fans, they put up their umbrellas and they went for it. There are definitely some true fans there in Canada. They were very supportive of the event.”
Uh, yeah. Gordon can make that pitch….but isn’t this the same guy who pitched such a temper tantrum at Montreal last summer?
Ah, a Gordon-versus-Gordon dogfight at Watkins Glen, now that would make for some fun (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Besides, Gordon has more on his mind at the moment: like finishing better than that 36th at Sonoma.
“Hopefully we don’t run ourselves out of fuel at Watkins, and we put ourselves in a position to time the pit stops right,” Gordon says ruefully.
“And if we do, I think we’ve got a legitimate shot at winning.
“Pit strategy has a lot to do with winning. Fuel mileage has a lot to do with it. And timing a caution right.
“Our cars have been fast at Sonoma. We ran in the top-three the first half of the (June) race…till we pushed it on fuel mileage. We hung ourselves out. We’ve either not gotten the fuel mileage to have the pit strategy, or we made some bad calls, or had a bad pit stop.
“And there are a lot of good road racers in NASCAR. Mark Martin (who has been very hot lately in that DEI Chevy) has been a phenomenal road racer for as long as I can remember; I teamed up with him in the late ‘80s and we won the 24 Hours of Daytona together.
Robby Gordon may be the only driver in NASCAR who doesn’t fear racing in the rain. Here Ron Fellows at rainy Montreal last weekend (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR)
“Now Ron Fellows—winning in the rain at Montreal – is a normal, traditional road race driver who has some experience – and advantage—in rain situations.
“But the last eight years in Cup races it’s been a NASCAR regular who’s won.”
And maybe this weekend that will – finally – be Robby Gordon.
Marcus Smith, here with actress Minka Kelly, insists Kentucky Speedway would be a great addition to NASCAR’s Cup tour (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)
THE NASCAR NOTEBOOK
Will Bruton Smith and his Speedway Motorsports (SMI) track holding company go ahead and buy Kentucky Speedway, as Smith promised back in May?
Maybe so, maybe not.
That’s the iffy judgment offered Wednesday by Bill Brooks, the chief financial officer for SMI, during the company’s second-quarter Wall Street conference call: “The Kentucky due diligence is ongoing and is not complete. Once it is, we will make a final decision, and file one way or the other by the end of this month.
“I cannot answer definitively if we will go forward…..”
Smith, in May, jumped into the middle of the long-running battle between the Kentucky track and NASCAR – the track is suing NASCAR over not getting a Sprint Cup tour date. And Smith said then he was convinced he could get Kentucky a Cup date on NASCAR’s 2009 tour.
NASCAR executives replied that they had no plans to add Kentucky. And until Kentucky’s Jerry Carroll does abandon his legal fight with NASCAR, the Daytona sanctioning body is unlikely to give any ground.
The track cost about $150 million to build. It’s hosted sold-out NASCAR Busch/Nationwide races and Indy-car events. But no Cup race.
Smith, who said he plans to expand the track to 120,000 seats, agreed to buy Kentucky by assuming considerable track debt, about $63.3 million, and paying $15 million in cash. However the deal included a clause that gives Smith 90 days to back out, and that deadline is looming.
Since its low of $17.72 a share a month ago, the company’s stock has moved up to a close of $20.10 Thursday. However that’s still well off its 52-week high of $40.63.
Marcus Smith, Bruton’s son and now head of SMI, says he understands all the questions about Kentucky Speedway. But he could offer few answers.
“It is a tremendous facility, and the market is fantastic for sports. You talk about sports fans, that area is in a fever over sports,” Marcus Smith says.
“If we are able to get a Cup date at that facility, and acquire it at a good price, that would give us a very strong facility and a great anchor in what is a Midwest area where we don’t have a race…and a unique area of the country for NASCAR, that really hasn’t been served.
“Some people say ‘It’s close to Bristol.’
“But Bristol is ‘close’ to Charlotte. And Charlotte is close to other facilities, and Atlanta is close to Talladega, and Phoenix is close to Las Vegas.
“This sport has grown up around itself.
“And there are millions of people around that facility who could support it if we have a Cup date there. Our hope is to realign a Cup date to that facility if we close on the transaction. And we’ll have a board discussion on that soon.”
And Marcus Smith said it was possible that SMI would move one of its current Cup tour dates to Kentucky. “That is one of the potential options we would have,” Smith said.
Agree? Disagree? Don’t just brood. Express yourself here, and make your voice heard clearly in NASCAR headquarters in Daytona and Charlotte and in NASCAR race shops throughout North Carolina and the rest of the country.
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Robby Gordon needs to keep better track of gas mileage at the Glen…running out of gas is a no-no (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)