Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Motor Mouth: Gordon and Johnson's history makes for compelling battle to the finish

Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson put on quite a show at Atlanta
in the closing laps. Credit: Credit: Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR
We may have had to wait two extra days for it, but Atlanta delivered one of the best battles to the finish we’ve seen all season - if not the last few seasons - and with it, a history-making win.

Seeing Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson duke it out in the last 20 laps of the rain-delayed AdvoCare 500 was one of the year’s most exhilarating moments. What added to it is the personal history and success the two Hendrick Motorsports teammates share: Gordon the master versus Johnson his protégé, with nine titles between the two.

The two have engaged in fierce battles on the track before, most notably for the win at the spring 2007 Martinsville race (Johnson won) and last spring at Texas and Talladega. After a move by Johnson at Talladega ultimately caused Gordon to wreck, a frustrated Gordon said, “The 48 is testing my patience, I can tell you that.”

But this time, there were no hard feelings – just some good racing and mutual admiration.

“I wish I could have won, but I have a lot of satisfaction in racing my friend and teammate. And it's Jeff Gordon that hard for a win,” Johnson said after coming in second, his second runner-up finish in the last three races.

“ … It's so cool to race that hard with him. And even if I did come in second, it's OK. I'd much rather have won. But we left it all out there on the track. And he got it done today.”

Gordon paid back the compliment.

“Certainly a great battle between me and Jimmie. A lot of fun out there racing him. Man, I was sliding around,” Gordon said, coming off his fifth win at the Atlanta track.

“When you're battling with a guy as talented as Jimmie is and that team as good as they are, definitely it's going to be one (win) that's going to be significant.”

With his 85th win, Jeff Gordon stands alone
in third place on the all-time wins list.
Credit: John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR
It was significant in more ways than one. Tuesday’s victory was Gordon’s 85th career win, designating the four-time champion as the third most-winningest driver in Sprint Cup history. It’s an honor Gordon has all to himself, breaking the tie with Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison for 84 career victories. Gordon, who turned 40 last month, trails only Richard Petty (200 wins) and David Pearson (105) on the esteemed list.

The win was also Gordon’s third this season, the result of the fruits of his labor with new crew chief Alan Gustafson. The two were paired together after the four-time champion went winless in 2010.

When the Chase point standings are reset after Richmond, Gordon’s three wins will give him an edge in bonus points over current points leader Johnson, whose only win of the year so far came earlier in the season at Talladega.

In terms of championships, the student surpassed the teacher when Johnson won his fifth title in 2010. But with his third win of the season, Gordon is serving notice he’s in the championship hunt, ready to claim that elusive fifth title.

“We’ve not been able to do battle with those guys (the 48) like we have been able to this year. Especially the last several weeks. And that’s what’s got me extremely excited,” Gordon said. “… I think the last couple of weeks we’ve been able to send a great message to all our competitors of how strong this team is, how good our race cars are.

“We’ve proven that we can win. I think you have to win to be able to win the championship and you also have to send a message to your competitors that they know you can win.”

ATLANTA ON MY MIND

When the 2011 schedule was announced last year, the attendance issues that had been plaguing Atlanta resulted in the track losing one of its two dates.

Though I understand the reasoning behind the move, it’s a shame Atlanta was scaled back. As we saw once again today, the track lends itself to fantastic finishes. Atlanta has hosted two of the closest in NASCAR history: Kevin Harvick’s first Sprint Cup win in 2001, an emotional victory just weeks after the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. that saw Harvick edge out the hard-charging Jeff Gordon, and Carl Edwards’ 2005 win after beating and banging alongside Jimmie Johnson.

Atlanta is billed as one of the fastest tracks on the circuit. The 1.54-mile track is often grouped with the other 1.5-mile tracks that make up the majority of the Sprint Cup schedule, often referred to as “cookie-cutter tracks.” But this is misleading. While some intermediate tracks are prone to strung-out racing, Atlanta’s multiple grooves allow for passing and lots of it. Tuesday’s restarts were wild – we saw cars go four- or even five-wide! Because of the choice of grooves and worn racing surface, the track is a favorite among drivers.

Atlanta’s spring race date was dropped and given to fellow Speedway Motorsports Inc. track Kentucky, which made its debut on the Cup schedule this year. Yes, Kentucky with the traffic catastrophe and the lackluster racing.

Having hosted the Labor Day weekend race since 2009, Atlanta is determined to make its sole date a highlight of the NASCAR season. The good news is, ticket sales for Sunday’s originally scheduled event were ahead of either Sprint Cup race last year, according to Atlanta Motor Speedway Marketing Director Marcy Scott in an Athens Banner Herald articleNASCAR estimated Tuesday's crowd at 29,700 compared to the original estimate of 87,600), reports on Twitter indicated the crowd for Tuesday's event was better than expected.

Despite the rain delay, Atlanta reminded us once again just how special this track really is. Maybe one day it’ll rise to the level of Darlington as a must-see, standalone event to circle on the calendar.

Motor Mouth is a weekly column in which Skirts and Scuffs lead editor Rebecca Kivak spouts off about the latest NASCAR happenings. Continue the conversation by leaving a comment below. To read past columns and other posts by Rebecca, click here.

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