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Rough driving has Gordon on edge coming to Texas

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McClatchy-Tribune
November 5, 2010
— Jeff Gordon is a nice guy. A courteous race car driver, if there is such a thing.

But he’s been getting pushed around lately, and that doesn’t sit well with any race car driver of any temperament. And certainly not any racer who’s out of the championship picture, like Gordon is.


Kurt Busch spun him out at Martinsville two weeks ago, effectively ending the No. 24 car’s shot to win the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup.


Last spring at Talladega, with the finish line only seven laps away, his own teammate, Jimmie Johnson, sent him off the track and killed his momentum.


Just the week before, at Texas Motor Speedway, Gordon had one of the best cars in the race until Tony Stewart touched off a mess that ended Gordon’s day. Stewart took the blame, and Gordon didn’t hold it against him. But still ...


Gordon hasn’t won all year. He’s had chances. He’s been banged around. He’s 207 points off the lead.


And now he returns to the 1.5-mile oval at Texas Motor Speedway that it took him so long to figure out.


All of it is more than enough to test his sunny outlook as he gets set to qualify Friday with the rest of the field for the AAA Texas 500.


“We’ve had such a great car there, it’s hard to go back any different,” said Gordon, who wound up 31st here in the spring after leading 124 laps. “I expect for us to really be strong there, and I’m excited about that.


“Our goal right now, by doing some positive things, is hopefully getting to Victory Lane and showing we are capable of winning and getting some momentum going into the off-season, regardless of what happens in the points.”


And restoring some of the luster to his reputation.


Gordon is a four-time Cup champion, but he’s gone 62 races without a victory. Since his last points championship, Gordon has been overtaken by Johnson as the dominant driver in the sport. Gordon no longer has the best ride in the Hendricks garage — although the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet is still the envy of most teams.


“Jeff is just as hungry as I can ever recall seeing him,” Johnson said. “I think that’s what leads to some of the frustrating moments and the conflict that takes place on the track. The guy is trying as hard as he can.”


When Johnson cut him off at Talladega in the spring, he said his own patience was being tested by the 24 car.


“There were a few things that I didn’t appreciate, so then I pushed back,” Johnson said. “The deal with Kurt, I would assume there’s more pages in that book to come. I wouldn’t think it would end that easily or that quick, or maybe they’ve talked and it is over. But Jeff is one of the best at applying pressure and filing things away. We’ve watched him do the bump and run and win plenty of races.”


Busch said Gordon had a history of wrecking the No. 2 car at Martinsville, whether it was driven by Busch or Rusty Wallace.


But Gordon can play the memory game, too.


“As drivers, when it comes to things like that, I can’t tell you what I did two days ago, but I can tell you who wrecked me 15 years ago,” he said last week. “And I’ll never forget that. That’s probably something Kurt Busch might want to think about for a while.”


That doesn’t mean Gordon is head-hunting. It’s not his style. His focus is on the car and the track, he said.


Same as it was in his championship years.


“I have not changed,” he said. “I’ve not done anything different today than I did 10 or 15 years ago. I race people the way they race me, and when somebody pushes and shoves, I’m going to push and shove back. But in a situation you’re going to isolate — at Martinsville with Kurt — you’ve got to understand who you’re racing and who you’re dealing with and that it isn’t worth it. It isn’t worth it to get into a situation with a guy that has such a short fuse.


“I’m a patient guy, and I’m a guy who tries to focus on what my racing needs to go out and win. And the last thing I’m going to do is let that focus be interrupted by somebody like Kurt Busch.”


Right now, TMS demands more of Gordon’s attention.


After years of trying to figure out the best way to get off TMS’ corners and into its straightaways, Gordon finally thinks he has a handle on it. He won the poles for the November races each of the past two seasons, and he won from the front row in April 2009.


But anything can happen.


“You never know what it’s going to take to pull off the win, but a fast race car certainly helps,” he said, thinking back to last April’s race. “And we had that. And I hope we can have that again going back.”



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