It’s now been a decade since Jimmie Johnson entered the Cup Series with Hendrick Motorsports. At the time, Jeff Gordon was a year removed from his fourth championship, had more wins than any other active driver (58), and seemed on course to perhaps double both numbers. With Johnson wheeling a team co-owned by Gordon himself, and overseen by Rick Hendrick, the school of thought was the apprentice would never overshadow the teacher.
Think again. As Johnson collected his 57th career victory Sunday – one short of that number Gordon once possessed – the five-time champion ran circles around his boss with the type of assist no race car, driver, or crew chief can control: Lady Luck. The No. 24 car once again had the speed to win the race; but when push came to shove, Dover’s Monster Mile had a soft spot for the No. 48. A loosened lugnut on Gordon’s car, creating a vibration and loose left-rear wheel, forced a pit stop on Lap 251 that took him out of sequence. But Gordon, whose crew got him back out quickly, still remained in the driver’s seat, if and only if the race could stay green until all cars were on the same pit cycle. All that was needed was a four-leaf clover of good fortune.
Someone found it alright; NASCAR, on the track when they mistook it for “debris.” The resulting caution, at the wrong time, left Gordon trapped a lap down and the frustration of a lost season boiling over on the radio.
“Where the **** is that debris?” the normally calm, controlled veteran wailed once luck escaped him. “I don’t see a **** bit of debris out there.”
To be fair, he wasn’t the only one searching for that seemingly invisible piece of metal. But bad luck, to this degree has become the hallmark of Gordon’s season. Whether it’s the flat tires from Darlington, bad Bristol contact or Daytona’s blown motor, 2012 has been sprinkled with a recipe of every kind of natural disaster.
“The fastest car doesn’t always win the race,” Gordon said Sunday, dejected at opportunity lost. “We’re sitting here in 13th; it’s silly. I can’t wait to see that debris on TV. I’d like to see it because I certainly never saw it.”
“Ultimately, we put ourselves in this position to get his finish. So, that’s very frustrating. We’ve had things out of our control this year. And I’m not really sure what happened. But obviously something happened. And then I don’t know. I don’t know what happened.”
Of course, waking up Monday morning Gordon’s confusion will be replaced by the depressing certainty of a desperation cause. 21st in points, the four-time champ sits in purgatory while across the way, Johnson looks like a title favorite. The No. 48, who stepped right in to the void the No. 24 left behind, has now won three times in the last four weeks on the Cup circuit, surging into the top 5 in points while claiming the label of “favorite” for this Fall’s championship Chase. At times, the post-race press conference felt like a coronation, Johnson gushing over questions once again labeling him the man to beat in November.
“Strategy,” he said. “Sometimes… at the end, the way the cautions fall it can backfire on the dominant car, and the way cautions fell today, it allowed us to really flex our muscle and bring home the win.”
It’s a tilt towards Johnson that’s happened before; like, for a decade now. It’s uncanny, considering Gordon’s statistics since adding his protégé to the roster haven’t exactly turned disastrous. Johnson had led over 12,600 laps over the course of his career; over the same timeframe, Gordon’s led just a tick short of 10,000. Over the past 10+ years, Gordon has collected a total of 209 top-10 finishes. Johnson? 233. That’s just a difference of slightly over ten percent, quite small when considering J.J. has five titles in the past decade to Gordon’s zero. The win differential during that time, 27 for Gordon to Johnson’s 58 also shows an overly dominant history by the No. 48. Even this year, the stats remain deceiving; Gordon sits third in laps led, with 403 to Johnson’s 791 in points-paying events yet has zero wins on the circuit to Johnson’s two.
The differences, it seems then come down to matters outside their control. Gordon, typically a guy who’s never closed that well has been a two-time victim of NASCAR’s Chase; without it, he wins a title in 2007 (regardless of “drivers might have raced differently hypotheses”) and very likely 2004. Instead, the new format has played right into teammate Johnson and Knaus’ hands… and good fortune. Example: Gordon, who last year entered the year as the postseason favorite blew a motor at Kansas, losing his edge with the type of “bad luck” mechanical failure you have to live with. Johnson? He hasn’t blown an engine in the postseason since the _first year it existed_ in 2004. Bad breaks make it easy for Gordon to wonder, at age 40, what could have been; what _has occurred_ is an eight-year drought where he’s finished behind the No. 48 in every year of the Chase.
That leaves Johnson, like it or not in the precarious position of having to “carry” his boss. But how do you advise a four-time champ, the one that provided you with _a career_ to keep frustration to a minimum? It’s one thing to text Kasey Kahne with some motivational words once the guy wrecks a few times. But texting a legend like Gordon “chin up” when you’re also the man who’s taking trophies away gets a little tricky.
“It’s tough to give him advice,” Johnson admitted. “He’s a guy I’ve looked up to my whole time here at Hendrick Motorsports. I’m always here for him. I could see that the communication between [Gordon crew chief] Alan [Gustafson] and myself, even in team debriefs, they are looking at our setups and what’s going on with our race cars – trying to understand why we do certain things. I’ve been very available for Jeff.”
The pupil sticking his neck out for the teacher – talk about a role reversal. But it’s warranted. Gordon, in 2012, still sits fourth on the list of four drivers within the empire he helped build in the championship standings. If you add Stewart-Haas Racing, he’s sixth out of six. For a guy who seemed ready to retire a few years back, how much does that irk him? And after eight years of losing to the same guy, year after year, has Gordon permanently lost his edge?
“Jeff is a strong guy,” Johnson said. “I know it’s tough on him, but it won’t keep him down. Those guys have way too much speed and are way too good of a race team to stay down. We just have to get them some wins and he’ll be in the Chase, he’ll be real strong.”
Imagine that… maybe the No. 48 will pull over and let the No. 24 win a race or two sometime this summer. The “boss” will probably put the car in reverse, by accident and then get struck by lightning; it’s been that kind of year. Or maybe a decade.
But Gordon, it seems has no choice in the matter. For when it comes to matters of Lady Luck, she appears married and happy to decide all “too close to call” votes in favor of the No. 48.