When one thinks of NASCAR racers making stupid comments in press conferences, there’s no shortage of names that come to mind: Harvick, the Busches, Stewart, these names easily roll off the tongue. Then there’s the heat of the moment stupids such as Kevin Lepage insisting he did nothing wrong by merging into traffic at Talladega or Todd Bodine abdicating all responsibility for his actions at Daytona.
But Jeff Gordon, that’s not a name that ugly remarks are typically associated with. Somehow, he got away with a big-time whopper at Charlotte. When asked if he would handle a head injury in the same way as teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who pulled himself out of a Chase-worthy race car to deal with a concussion, Gordon told the media, “No, I wouldn’t. That’s why I say we all play a part in this. If I have a thought at the championship, there’s two races to go, my head is hurting, and I just came through a wreck, and I am feeling signs of it, but I’m still leading the points, or second in the points, I’m not going to say anything. I’m sorry.”
It doesn’t matter that the finishing school-polished Gordon prefaced his remarks by stating, “Honestly, I hate to say this.” And it doesn’t matter that Gordon’s remarks are utterly ignorant of every shred of athletic health science that has been produced the past decade (though that doesn’t make them any less uninformed).
What matters is that Gordon, being the teammate of Dale Earnhardt Jr., cast aside the reasoned judgment of his teammate to make a personal statement about his competitive nature. For crying out loud, this is Jeff Gordon–the standard-bearer for politically correct, the one who chants that teams come first–remarking that his competitive streak would trump both science and common sense. That he would not do what his teammate did, even if it was the right thing in terms of safety, health and career longevity.
Even if that statement is true (and I have a very hard time believing that the father of two on the downward slope of his career would really be climbing back into a race car with his head messed up), Gordon is the last driver that should be making the type of statement an 18-year-old rookie that doesn’t know better would.
For one, Gordon, as much of a veteran as he is, has been remarkably blessed over the course of his career to avoid injury. He’s had his share of violent wrecks. Pocono in 2006 saw the sheet metal ripped from the driver’s side of his roll cage, while his tremendous impact at Las Vegas in 2008 threw a radiator hundreds of feet and prompted the track to install more SAFER barriers. He’s been fortunate enough to emerge unscathed in those incidents.
However, the same can’t be said for teammate Earnhardt, who even before his recent concussion problems suffered through a harrowing wreck in 2004 in a sports car race at Sonoma. That episode left him burned and forced to give way to a relief driver for two weeks while in the thick of a campaign that saw Junior win six races, including the Daytona 500. To date, that season is still the best he’s had in Cup racing, even if he finished higher in the standings in 2003.
But even more important than that, Gordon is a four-time champion and one of the most experienced and respected figures in the garage today. His words, whatever they are and whether or not he specifies that they are about him and not the sport at large, carry significant weight. Let’s not forget that it wasn’t but a few years ago that a young Denny Hamlin lamented the fact that NASCAR listened to a driver like Gordon, but not a new gun like himself.
Now, that same Gordon is running his mouth that he is so competitive, so flawed (his conclusion stated, “That’s not the way it should be. It’s something that most of us, I think, would do. I think that’s what gets a lot of us in trouble.”) that he would go old school. Not in the sense that he’d trade paint or go for the win in lieu of points, but that he’d play through blacking out or smoke a cigar while driving around at 200 mph.
I will get a ton of email this week about how I’m making a mountain of a molehill to write a column. There will be those that praise Jeff Gordon for proving a competitor above all else. There will be those that remark how Gordon’s comments were hardly a slight to teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But the reality is this; anyone that’s been a competitor, from the amateur soccer player that scarfs down ibuprofen and double tapes his sprained ankle to keep playing, to the professional race car driver that’s endured two hard crashes in six weeks, has a big-time instinct to tough it out and play on. Those soccer players end up on the couch for months with an ankle fracture. And those race car drivers are taking their lives in their hands. Even if today’s cars make death less than likely a consequence of a major wreck, repeated head injuries have a way of making retirement years a lot less enjoyable.
If there’s ever been a time for race cars drivers, Hendrick-affiliated or otherwise, to use their heads and bite their tongues, it’s with regard to questioning a response to head injuries.