Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: The Curious Case of Jeff Gordon & the Chase

In last weekend’s race recap, I made casual mention of the fact that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was well ahead of teammate Jeff Gordon in the points standings and wondered why everyone thought the No. 88 team was having a miserable year while the No. 24 team was spared such heat.

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I should have known better after all the years I’ve been doing this stuff: “Casual” results in casualties in writing about NASCAR.

By Monday afternoon (Nov. 14), I was deluged by hate mail saying my assessment of Gordon’s season was “unfair,” to use one of the more polite terms. Most of the emails apparently came as a result of an email writing campaign espoused on one of the many Jeff Gordon message boards, where the faithful still gather to warm themselves by the dying embers of Gordon’s glory days.

Gordon’s fans can be a little testy. Who can blame them? When Gordon came bursting onto the Cup scene in 1993 like a supernova, he was quickly vilified by longtime fans who felt he didn’t meet the standards of a proper stock car racer. He wasn’t from the Deep South, he was too young and good-looking, and hadn’t “paid his dues.”

On the other hand, people drawn to the sport in that era (in large part by the barnburner of a season in 1992) immediately latched onto Gordon because he was, in fact, young and good-looking, highly successful and he talked like they did.

Those newer fans didn’t care much for the guy with a mustache who drove the black No. 3 car because he tended to sound grumpy even when they could understand what he was saying, and he drove in ways they’d been taught not to in high school Driver’s Ed only a few years before.

Being a Gordon fan wasn’t easy back then. At some tracks, wearing his gear to a race risked having some drunk pour a beer over your head or getting spit on. In a way, the anti-Gordon sentiment among the ABG (Anybody but Gordon) fanbase was good for the sport. Even when they couldn’t cheer on Dale to a win, they were passionate about cheering Gordon’s misfortunes.

I don’t suppose it’s easy to be a Gordon fan these days, either. Oh, he still posts some good numbers, but measured against the stellar standards of Gordon’s in the late ’90s and early part of this century he isn’t measuring up. Gordon is a four-time Cup champion, but the latest of those titles was scored a full decade ago in 2001.

While he’s still with the same team driving the same car number, a lot has changed for Gordon. His marriage to Brooke ended with more than a whiff of scandal and squabbling about her inalienable right to have a souse chef on duty full-time on Jeff’s dime – as well as who got to keep the Ferrari. Brooke went so far as to say that she’d made Gordon a success, citing the fact she “taught him to dress.”

To the best of my knowledge, Gordon hasn’t shown up naked at the track since the divorce so maybe not.

Meanwhile, Gordon has remarried and fathered two children. He seems to prefer spending time in his New York City digs to North Carolina or Florida. The boos that once dogged him during driver intros have grown quieter now, because most seasons he doesn’t have enough success to warrant any great deal of venom better placed elsewhere … like on that new “kid” Jimmie Johnson, Gordon’s teammate, who had won five straight titles.

Ironically enough, it was Gordon who insistently urged Rick Hendrick to add Johnson to the team and who is, in fact, listed as part owner of the No. 48. My guess is there’s more than a few evenings Gordon has regretted that decision. In fact, if he were seated in a tavern elbows up on the bar and the juke started playing the Eagles’ “New Kid in Town” I’m sure he’d cringe.

That assumes that Gordon is, in fact, the sort who went to a corner tavern with a juke to have a beer, which he’s not, one of the things people disliked about him when he came on the scene. It always amazes me when Johnson and Gordon get in a tiff, as has happened more than once. It’s like listening to Mike and Carol Brady curse each other out over family finances.

After the email/hate mail deluge, I did take the time to review Gordon’s season to date. And to an extent, those who felt I was being unfair have a point. Gordon’s year hasn’t been that bad in all actuality. He’s won three races: Phoenix, Pocono and Atlanta in a season when no driver has won more than four events.

To date in 2011, Gordon has 12 top-five finishes and a total of 17 top 10s in 35 points-paying starts. And yet he’s 11th in the points, with only a modest lead over 12th-place Kyle Busch, who had to sit out a race due to his outrageous conduct at Texas.

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Over the years, when people have asked me where Gordon had lost his edge I had two theories. First was the loss of Ray Evernham, the crew chief who sat atop the box for the best year’s of Gordon’s career. (A move that didn’t work out too well for Evernham either, in retrospect).

The second was that Gordon never seemed to acclimate himself to the “Car of Tomorrow” introduced for some races back in 2007. In the five years the Car of Sorrow has been an unsightly blot on the radar at NASCAR, Gordon has won 10 races. In the nine seasons prior to the new car, Gordon had won 46 times, including 13 race wins racked up in 1998 alone.

Others have postulated less kindly that Gordon is just past his prime, but I don’t go along with that. I seem to recall a fellow named Harry Gant who was doing pretty well in NASCAR despite being no spring chicken.

Now, I’m beginning to wonder if Gordon’s problems are somehow related to the Chase format. While Gordon has won four Cup championships, all of those were won under the old full-season or “classic” methods of crowning a titlist.

As I mentioned, Gordon’s overall season-long stats are nothing to sneeze at. Three wins and top-10 finishes in just under half of all this year’s points-paying races would be a career season for many drivers. Gordon started this year’s Chase in third place, just three points out of the lead, six points ahead of Carl Edwards and nine points ahead of Tony Stewart.

But the nine Chase races run to date haven’t been as kind to Gordon. Two top-five finishes and only one additional top-10 result have been offset by five finishes outside the top 20. Certainly, the No. 24 car losing an engine at Kansas in and of itself might have been a dealbreaker in the championship.

And therein lays the inherent unfairness of the Chase format and the current points system. The new points system penalizes a driver far more for a single lackluster (or in the case of Gordon at Kansas, disastrous) finish than it rewards him for winning a race.

And while Gordon has had a good season, it’s a relative lack of performance in these last nine races compared to the previous 26 that have deprived him of a shot at adding a fifth championship to his resume and left him 11th in the standings. (Under the classic points system, Gordon would currently be sixth with a very unlikely, but still mathematically possible shot at winning a championship in 2011. In fact, under that old system seven drivers would have arrived at Homestead still mathematically in the title hunt, not just two).

Wasn’t that the stated goal of the Chase, that multiple drivers would battle it out in the final race for all the marbles?

I’ve long since figured out that when it comes to riding quads, folks who start out on those four-wheelers have an inherent advantage over those of us who started trail-riding on two-wheel motorcycles. Having ridden and raced two-wheel motorcycles since I was nine, my immediate instinct when it feels like the machine I’m on is about to topple is to drop a foot to the ground to stabilize the proceedings.

Even approaching a fast corner, I’ll still drop a foot out of habit preparing to steer around the corner using the throttle and rear wheel rather than the front with my foot as an outrigger. Try that on a four-wheel quad and what inevitably happens is your own rear tire rides up your ankle and onto your calf with painful results that sometimes end in your face bouncing off the handlebars, or gas tank, or your nuts banging that same gas tank.

Likewise, I’ve always felt the fact some drivers are so successful in Cup racing today is that they’ve never driven in that series in anything but the Car of Tomorrow. It doesn’t feel “weird” to them because that’s all they’ve ever known. Older drivers who are still looking for the more comfortable feel the old car used to grant them are giving up speed.

And it may be the same for the drivers who once competed for season-long titles versus those who have only gone for a championship under the Chase. Those first 26 races don’t matter as much for those accustomed to running hard every event, all season long. Eight of the 10 Chase races take place on tracks where the circuit has already visited at some point earlier in the year.

Why not throw away that first trip to those tracks, running experimental setups that might be of benefit if they work prior to the Chase? Why not settle for a top-10 finish to pave your way to making the Chase rather than running, both guns blazing for glory and risk missing the top 12? If the fans don’t like it, oh well, the big money gets paid for how you run in the last 10 races.

Johnson’s No. 48 team was the first to perfect the art of easing into the Chase, then turning on the afterburners for ten races. That’s how he’s always done it. Having been around since the last race of 1992, Gordon still has a mindset that you have to go out there every Sunday afternoon and perform (or if the race is at night, prove it all night) because that’s how he had to run to beat the likes of Dale Earnhardt back in the day.

Folks have tried to tell me that’s just the way it is in deciding sports’ championships. An NFL team might go into the playoffs with a record barely over .500 if they compete in a weaker division and still have a chance to wrest the Super Bowl title from a team that had gone undefeated in the regular season.

But there’s a key difference between the stick-and-ball sports and NASCAR racing. In NASCAR, all 43 teams “play” against one another every week. The results of every race ought to be equally important. The fans seem to have caught onto the Chase and its strategies, meaning they’re losing interest in NASCAR’s regular season to an even greater extent than they are towards the sport as a whole.

How many titles has Jeff Gordon lost under the Chase format that he might have won under the classic points system? It’s impossible to tell. All teams change their strategies given the rules announced prior to the season. Some just do so better than others.

But we can’t do away with the Chase, can we? Of course not. In 2003, Matt Kenseth won the Cup title despite having won only one race. And if Edwards wins this year’s title on Sunday … well, um … Houston, we have a problem.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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