Can you blame Gordon for being mad?

April, 26, 2010

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.



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