Flat Spot On by Jonathan Ingram Is Jeff Gordon Toast? Is it already time for Jeff Gordon's career to be on the downside? Is the one-time boy wonder past his prime at age 37 after yet another desultory race compared to teammate and two-time...
Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
Is Jeff Gordon Toast?
Is it already time for Jeff Gordon's career to be on the downside?
Is the one-time boy wonder past his prime at age 37 after yet another desultory race compared to teammate and two-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson?
Should we be preparing for the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy to be regarded as a rolling icon rather than a racing machine in the near future?
At the very least, some of Gordon's longtime fans are getting antsy. They hear the same post-race comments about his team still trying to get its act together on the COT chassis week after week. Sure, there's enough points to make the Chase and there was the pole at Dover prior to a seventh-place finish. But where's the usual trips to Victory Lane for a driver who has 81 career wins but hasn't seen a victory since October of last year?
So what's up with the COT and Gordon anyway? Last year Gordon won six races and seven poles in the debut season of the COT chassis. He won the first race for the COT on a superspeedway at Talladega, his last victory before the current 35-race winless streak started.
What's more, Gordon's first victory last season at Phoenix came in just the third race appearance of the COT. Should we really be blaming the COT for Gordon threatening to go winless for an entire season for the first time since his rookie season?
The Hendrick team was outstanding in the 16 events last year where NASCAR's "Car of Tomorrow" appeared. The Hendrick team won the first five COT events, including Kyle Busch's victory at Bristol in the car's inaugural race. In all, Hendrick won nine of the COT races, including five by Johnson and three by Gordon.
The standard view is that Hendrick got the jump on the COT with some clever testing tactics (or more than clever according to Jack Roush) versus the competition. So the team was ahead of the game, relatively speaking, although Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing also scored two victories apiece with the new chassis.
These latter two teams are currently dominating the victory column in this season's full schedule for the COT, including back-to-back Chase wins by the recussitated Greg Biffle, also previously working on a long winless streak.
The opinion here is that Gordon is having one of those champion driver career moments. The victories are indeed not coming as easily as they once did versus the likes of his younger teammate Johnson or the ever-hungry Edwards and Busch. Where Gordon has in years past been able to work on his chassis throughout a race to prepare for the last 100 miles of racing, this year his late-race efforts are increasingly stillborn. This can be attributed to learning how to use the COT, which is still in the early stages of the learning curve for all teams.
It's not unlike other champions who have been forced to change their driving styles to suit new equipment. Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace fell to 11th and 12th in the points in 1992 with a mere single victory apiece when Goodyear's radials replaced the bias plys for the entire schedule. But each driver adapted and recovered with the help of savvy new crew chiefs.
It can happen in all forms of the sport, especially with tire changes. Two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso was far more phenomenal on the boxy Michelins than the taller Bridgestones, for instance.
If Gordon makes it through the current transition, that would be the second major shift in his career. For the past decade, he hasn't been the driver he was under ever-aggressive Crew Chief Ray Evernham, who fought to lead the most laps every race by keeping ample pressure on his driver to gain bonus points. That led to three championships in four seasons from 1995-98.
For stock car drivers, the hardest transition is when new equipment forces a change in corner entry, which is where Gordon is currently. In the garage, there's been a fair amount of discussion about cornering techniques when it comes to the COT, specifically in reference to Kyle Busch's success. But Busch will be the first to tell you it's not a matter of the COT suiting his driving style. He says he drives every lap as hard as he can and tries to give good feedback on how the car is handling to his crew.
This is the area where Gordon and Crew Chief Steve Letarte are not getting the job done -- getting into the corners consistently and mid-race changes. It begins with the original car set-up, which is not necessarily the same as teammate Johnson's preferences. The same problem of mid-race changes would also be true of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Crew Chief Tony Eury Jr. with the No. 88 entries of Hendrick.
It's the motivation that usually goes first for race car drivers, the unwillingness to drive on the edge all day long. Back in the day, drivers were fired on a weekly basis over accusations of balloon-footing, some of which were true. Other times, drivers were smart enough not to push the issue with bad (as in dangerous) equipment and became fall guys for team owners and crew chiefs.
The safety standards have increased with the COT. And no one thus far has doubted Gordon's motivation any more than they have doubted the motivation of Earnhardt Jr. The big difference is that Earnhardt Jr. tends to wrestle an ill-handling machine within an inch of the wall where Gordon is relatively more contemplative.
I suspect as the weeks go by without a victory the motivation tends to get stronger in Gordon's case. If anybody is going to fall by the wayside, it's going to be the crew chief.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at email@example.com.