With RCR, Gordon's time is definitely now
By Stephen Thomas, CNNSI.com
LONG POND, Pa. -- "Nice and smooth," was the advice. "With a little patience, we'll have a good one here."
On the face of it, the remark could be seen as nothing more than the usual early race, give-and-take that characterizes communication between a driver and his spotter. As it was, the modest suggestion was almost lost among the calls to check the belts, fairly buried among the requests to check the gauges, virtually overlooked between warnings to be alert. An argument could even be made that it was nothing more than the standard advice offered by a spotter to his driver.
But it's a measure of Robby Gordon's career that not only does that cautionary remark need saying, it's almost a requirement. Moreover, the statement is that much more revealing given the timing of its delivery: Just three laps into Sunday's Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway.
No one in or around the Winston Cup garage denies Gordon's driving talent. The success he's demonstrated in everything from rally cars to Indy cars renders that discussion unnecessary. And his occasional flashes of brilliance in Winston Cup -- his second-place finish as a replacement for Mike Wallace in the No. 7 car five weeks ago at Sears Point -- also show that he has huge upside potential in NASCAR.
But as Sunday's tossed-off remark emphasizes, Gordon still has some work to do before he convinces NASCAR power brokers that he is a safe bet. Not only is he hamstrung by the reputation of being impatient and, hence, hard on equipment, but Gordon is perhaps even more handicapped by the perception that he is difficult.
Richard Childress, a Gordon friend and his current employer during the driver's stint in place of the injured Mike Skinner in the No. 31 car, waives away Gordon's reputation for childishness. "That's the same perception attached to a lot of people," says Childress. "It's like all of us: When you're 25 years old, you do things and you say things you'd like to take back. He's matured. We don't see problems and he's been nothing but great to work with."
Needless to say, Gordon, 32, also disagrees with the talk, but he's also refreshingly candid in assessing his own shortcomings, both real and perceived.
"Well obviously, this thing with Morgan-McClure re-fired [the talk] again," Gordon says a bit wistfully. "About the time it all started going away ..."
Gordon is pointedly referring to what he has learned in the aftermath of his brief, tempestuous five-race relationship with Morgan-McClure Racing, a pairing that began with great fanfare and quickly ended in almost complete disaster -- his best finish was 20th at Atlanta.
"It's not like I was totally out of line on some of these things or out of line on where I wanted to be," Gordon says of that disappointing and damaging period. "I think you can even go to some of the crew guys that work on the No. 4 car; I didn't make any of those guys mad. It was more just [a situation where] me and Larry had complete different desires of where we wanted to be. I probably shouldn't have went to him."
But go to him Gordon did and, obviously, the results did nothing for his standing as a person, nor did it give him time to dispel impressions of him as an impatient driver, another purported flaw that he knows he must address.
"I think the most important thing is that I have good, clean runs," says Gordon. "I don't want to put a wheel wrong any week, but there are so many naysayers out here that say, 'OK, gosh, he caused this wreck or he caused that wreck.' I just want to do a good job and prove that I can race these guys clean. Heads up, clean and be competitive.
"I was a little disappointed," he continues, "when I read in the paper that the only time we really got noticed [in New Hampshire] was when we were in the leader's way. I think we were with the leaders all day long ..." Gordon doesn't finish the thought, but it's clear anyway: and didn't cause a wreck.
While Gordon hasn't set the world on fire in his two-race stint with Childress -- he finished 25th in New Hampshire (after racing in the top 10 for much of the afternoon) and 28th at Pocono, neither has he given his critics any further ammunition. "Robby has a chance to showcase his talents here for four races and he's done an excellent job," says Royce McGee, crew chief of the No. 31. "Last week [at New Hampshire], he did a super job."
McGee, who worked with Gordon briefly at Roush Racing a few years ago, says something revealing about the driver everyone loves to slam for his supposed impetuosity. "Everybody at one time or another has a bad reputation through the media," says McGee. "And when he came and drove our cars at Roush, he was a gung-ho young guy, wide open, he was wanting to drive that thing like it was an off-road truck. We had to calm him down. But he's learned a lot, shows a lot of patience on the racetrack, knows when to pass, when to give a guy a break."
And here's the kicker, the comment that will likely be music to Gordon's ears ... and words that could go a long way toward resurrecting his reputation in the garage. "He didn't tear the car up," says McGee said. "And that's the thing with this business now, you race week to week, you got to fix these cars for the next race, you ain't got time to be fixing 'em every week. He's done a good job with that stuff."
Gordon has another two races with Childress during which he hopes and expects to further burnish his resume. That those two races are at Indianapolis, a track he knows well, and Watkins Glen, a road course on which he can obviously shine, is all the better. And though there are rumors that he might well replace Skinner in the No. 31 next year, it's apparent that Gordon has benefited from his difficult experiences this year.
"When everything happened, I'm glad I went away for a little while," says Gordon. "I let everything go away. When I came back I almost came back at the perfect time. I'm pretty happy. I think I've matured some this year. I think I've obviously learned a lot not only as a driver, but as a person. [People] talk about my age and where I'm at: I'm 32 years old. I could do this for 10 more years easy."
Easy or not, Gordon's time is definitely now ... and the clock is ticking.