Category archive: Jeff Gordon

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Sunday's -- or Monday's, or Tuesday's, depending on the weather -- Aaron's 499 may not be a replay of the single-file promenade that kept you dozing and grumbling through the Gen-6 car's debut at Daytona in February.

"It looks like it's going to be a pretty crazy race," pole sitter Carl Edwards said Saturday.

Hold on, you say. Edwards, maybe the hardest-luck restrictor-plate racer of his time -- destroying five cars at Daytona alone this year -- is on the pole at Talladega?

How he got to the top starting spot is interesting enough in itself. Same goes for Martin Truex Jr., who will start second, and Marcos Ambrose, third.

Qualifying was rained out Saturday, and the forecasts call for a 60 percent chance of rain Sunday and 50 percent Monday.

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Martin Truex Jr.
Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty ImagesMartin Truex Jr. says he thinks two racing lines may form at Talladega, unlike earlier this year at Daytona.

Whenever the Gen-6's second plate-race outing happens, the starting order will be determined by speeds in Friday's practice. Because the whole garage area knew the lousy weather was coming, they treated that first practice as "a heat race," Edwards said.

He, Truex and Ambrose managed the quickest runs -- and "runs" is the key word. Runs on one another. That's what may make the difference from Daytona, where drivers just couldn't put together the classic plate-racing scrambles.

"We expected it to be similar to Daytona, but it actually feels quite a bit different, which is interesting," Truex said. "We really don't know what to expect for tomorrow yet. The practicing is never like it is in the race."

There's always a chance drivers will choose to do a ride-around similar to what happened at Daytona -- and which they've chosen to do here in the past, when the rules packages had them baffled.

But in practice this time, "The cars seemed to suck up [to each other in the draft] and get runs a whole lot better," Truex said, "even when we were toward the front of the pack.

"We saw a lot of single-file racing at Daytona," he continued, "but I don't expect the race here tomorrow to be quite that way. It seemed like guys were able to get a lot of runs and make a lot of stuff happen in practice."

"There were definitely more runs than what there was at Daytona, as far as getting more speed to make things happen out there," Ambrose said. "I felt racier than I expected."

How did those three end up quickest?

"It was all about getting in position to get a big run and run a whole lap without having to check up or drag the brake or slow the car down," Truex said. "A lot of guys didn't try to get the big lap. They were just trying to work on their cars for tomorrow."

All in all, "It was like a heat race out there," Edwards said. "We were four wide in practice once -- at least that's what my spotter told me.

"The cars seemed to do a really good job of pulling up and actually passing other cars."

"Actually" passing was what the cars had a hard time doing at Daytona. One could pull alongside another but would seem to stall out in a baffling side-wash of air.

Not enough has changed about the Gen-6 car since Daytona to make a difference -- at least nobody has been caught with any gray-area tweaking of aerodynamics this weekend.

So it has to be the track. Talladega is 2.66 miles to Daytona's 2.5, higher-banked and wider.

"There will be the opportunity to have some bigger packs just because of the style of racetrack and there is more room to maneuver," said Kevin Harvick, who had the dominant car of Daytona Speedweeks, winning both the Sprint Unlimited and his qualifying race before getting wrecked out early in the 500. "What effect, and how big that effect is on this style of racing, is obviously yet to be determined."

"The only thing that is different is this is a wider racetrack," Jeff Gordon said. "You don't have to worry about handling here, where handling was a little bit of an issue at Daytona."

At Daytona, driver skittishness about forming an inside line, at the risk of being shuffled back by the clearly faster outside lane, was the root issue of what amounted to -- hrrmph -- less than a fan-pleaser.

"It certainly could happen," Gordon said of forming an inside line, "and it could have happened at Daytona. It just didn't seem like enough guys really wanted to get organized to do it. They were pretty committed to stay in that outside lane."

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who arguably likes Talladega more than any other driver, noted another possible nuance that could help.

"The asphalt has aged a little bit [since the repaving in 2006], and hopefully, it is getting slicker and slicker," Earnhardt said. "Makes actually racing around each other a lot more challenging than it has been lately at the plate tracks."

How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!
-- William Shakespeare, "King Lear"

Can you blame Jeff Gordon for being miffed at Jimmie Johnson?

Gordon discovered the guy, gave him a ride, got him a sponsor and heralded him to the NASCAR world.

He has had to eat his protégé's dust ever since and has nobly handled giving up the pinnacle as NASCAR's driver to beat. Mostly since 2002, Gordon has been a Johnson publicist, spending much of his own media-conference time reiterating just how good JJ is.

Now this.

Gordon, who had appeared to be slipping into the twilight of his career, at last is being given race cars as quick as Johnson's. Gordon has been threatening to win on an almost weekly basis lately.

After languishing for eight years as JJ's valet, Gordon wouldn't mind getting another look at the view from the pinnacle.

But JJ has been messing with his mentor enough that "he's been testing my patience and it's about reached its boiling point," Gordon said after their latest incident, Sunday at Talladega.

Gordon got a tremendous run down the backstretch, but Johnson moved down to block -- bad move, Gordon pointed out, when someone's coming that much faster.

Johnson later told The Associated Press that his intention was to link up with Gordon to draft together, and he said he misjudged the closing speed. But if it was misjudgment, it was gross and flagrant -- inconsiderate.

Gordon's momentum was broken so badly that he dropped back and was collected in a wreck seconds later.

This on top of a punch in the right-side door from JJ as they dueled during the previous race, at Texas, and strong words for each other afterward.

The Hendrick organization keeps smoothing things over with how competitive they are -- "stallions," Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, calls them -- and Johnson concedes that "we're both greedy …"

But think back, to when Gordon was anything but greedy toward an unknown driver who just might never have made it without him.

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Jeff Gordon
AP Photo/Mike FuentesJeff Gordon has torn up a few race cars this season, and more than once he's blamed teammate Jimmie Johnson for at least part of it.

To this day, Johnson's career highlight film might consist of one horrific Nationwide crash at Watkins Glen in 2001, in a mediocre car, had not Gordon shown up unannounced at a test at Darlington later that season.

NASCAR's then-top driver noticed how brilliantly the then-unknown driver negotiated the tough old track in a so-so car.

Johnson didn't even realize Gordon had noticed him, but Gordon went back to Rick Hendrick and told him he'd found the guy for a fourth Hendrick team. Gordon was so certain that he took a piece of the action, becoming co-owner of the new team he proposed.

As for sponsorship, Hendrick was amazed at how intensely Gordon could work as a businessman in suit and tie. After one long negotiating session with Lowe's, Hendrick noticed that when Gordon got up from the table, "the back of his dress shirt was wet with sweat."

Gordon came away with the best sponsorship deal in NASCAR, beginning in 2002.

"That was the last time I finished ahead of them in points, 2002," Gordon recalled.

As the team developed, Gordon questioned Knaus as a crew chief for Johnson but deferred to Hendrick's judgment and put in place the man who would contribute enormously to Johnson's success.

Since then, Gordon has been the accompanist to JJ's solo performances for 50 wins and, in the past four years, four straight championships.

Gordon had to work harder for his four championships, winning them the old-fashioned way, since first he beat the toughest title brawler of them all, Dale Earnhardt, in 1995.

Gordon hasn't won a championship since 2001, the year he built the best ride possible for Johnson.

Johnson's side of their recent conflict is that "there comes a point that if you don't stand up for yourself, people are going to continue to push you around, teammate or not," he said at Talladega, referring to the door-punch at Texas.

But there are teammates, and then there are benefactors who become teammates. Isn't there at least a nuance there?

Johnson had retaliated because "for the few laps leading to that contact, he kept pushing the envelope, pushing the envelope, running into the back of me, getting me sideways," he told ESPN at Texas.

But by Talladega, Johnson realized that's how Gordon contends, when he's got a winning car: "He doesn't wreck guys, but he knows how to just get in there and upset you a little bit."

That was the Jeff Gordon of yore, who would gleefully describe how he would get in behind a leader and loosen him up, then drive right by him.

That was Jeff Gordon, before he got so busy making Jimmie Johnson a star.

So now, Gordon doesn't mind if Johnson races him relentlessly. But to race him thanklessly is another matter.