- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
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If it were up to Robby Gordon, every week on the Sprint Cup calendar would be exactly like this one: two consecutive races -- Fontana and Las Vegas -- held in locations separated by only a few hours and the big, beautiful sandy desert.
In the few days that he has between NASCAR appointments, the 40-year-old Orange, Calif., native is always a blur of work and play, grilling out at the homestead he shares with his family, dropping by his off-road racing shop to check in on the boys, constantly courting potential sponsors, then dragging out some toys to do a little dune-dancing before he has to report for his day job at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"These are my people," he said with a relaxed grin. "The dirt people. If we could do it and still make a living at it, we'd all just stay out in the desert just driving around in whatever we could get our hands on. Dune buggies, motorcycles, my trophy truck, whatever it would be like 'The Road Warrior,' only there'd have to be plenty of gas, right?"
Then again, if it were up to Robby Gordon, every week on the Sprint Cup calendar would not be exactly like this one. One where he has a 100-point/$100,000 penalty hanging over his head for a Daytona inspection issue that even his car manufacturer admits wasn't his fault, a penalty that basically negates his career-best eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500 and has him sitting 32nd in points instead of 12th.
If this was truly the perfect week that it should be, then his stock car crew back in North Carolina wouldn't still be changing out all his Ford gear to Dodge thanks to a last-second February manufacturer switch. And he wouldn't be losing sleep over losing roughly $4.5 million because of -- get this -- Al-Qaeda.
"At the end of the day, I just want to race," he said with exhaustion creeping into his voice, not a good sign two races into the season. "All any of us want to do is race. But there's always so much BS involved in everything, you can't ever seem to get out from under it, so you just keep plowing ahead."
Especially if you're the last of a dying -- some say already dead -- breed. The lone survivor of stock car racing's era of the driver-owner, the last of its single-car teams and, with all due respect to Dave Marcis, the truly last of the independents; one of the last racers who can claim victories at every level and in every series -- Indy cars, NASCAR, off-road, sports cars, you name it.
NASCAR's lone wolf, fittingly, standing alone in the desert.
Big fall since fall
Only three months ago, life in Gordon's world couldn't have been much better. Last year proved to be the best of his three seasons as a full-time Cup Series driver-owner, slashing his DNFs from 13 in 2005 to two in '07 and, more importantly, finishing 28th in owner points to secure a starting spot in the first five races of '08. After a career of driving unhappily for others -- from Derrick Walker to Richard Childress -- Gordon was finding success and satisfaction as his own boss, fighting the one-car fight in a multicar world.
"There were a lot of things that could have gone better for us last season," he said in January, pointing to near victories in the Watkins Glen Cup event and the bizarre Nationwide Series race in Montreal. "But to finish safely inside the top 35 in owner points without the money and resources of the Hendrick or Roush was like making the Chase for us."
But just as the "other Gordon" was wrapping up his NASCAR season, a run of terrible luck jumped up out of the sand like that scorpion-looking Decepticon that tried to eat Josh Duhamel in "Transformers."
His SCORE Trophy Truck was the class of the field in November's Baja 1000, a race he's won four times before, but his crew misjudged sundown and failed to attach his headlamps during a crucial pit stop, leaving him running through the moonless desert in the pitch-black night and out of contention.
"We basically ran the whole stage while pointing a handheld light out in front of us. Just so you know that's just as hard to do as it sounds like it would be," he said.
Next up was the 15-day, 6,000-mile Dakar Rally, which makes the Baja look like driving your kids to school. For his third crack at Dakar, Gordon expanded to two Hummers, enlisted a teammate and shipped an army's worth of equipment and support vehicles to Portugal for the Jan. 5 green flag. That's when Al-Qaeda came calling.
On Christmas Eve, a group of French tourists were killed while having a roadside picnic in Mauritania, the West African nation where eight of the rally's 15 stages were scheduled to take place. A terrorist cell linked to Al-Qaeda soon took credit for the slayings and threatened trouble for the French-organized rally, which to many has long been a symbol of Western extravagance. One hour before the start of the race, officials announced it was canceled. There is still talk about a midsummer do-over, which won't exactly fit into a full-time NASCAR racer's calendar.
"I just can't believe they gave it up so easily," Gordon said, still in disbelief. "There were nearly 600 teams sitting there, ready to go, and they just pulled the plug. I had 40 people there and all of a sudden I'm booking flights and hotels and pissing people off asking why we didn't just hold some sort of event to save face for the event and for my sponsors."
So it was back to Daytona for an appearance Gordon hadn't planned to make: testing.
January testing went about as well as testing ever goes, but by the end of the month it was obvious to Gordon that in order for his single-car team to keep up, he needed a boost in manufacturer and technical support as well as some help recruiting sponsors. For three years he'd done an admirable job of juggling multiple contracts with Jim Beam, Menards, Mapei and Camping World to cover the cost of a season, but he couldn't keep making the calls on his own, especially with a new $4.5 million loss on the books. So on Feb. 1, only one week before the first Daytona practice session, Gordon announced a technical and marketing partnership with newly revamped Gillett Evernham Motorsports and Dodge. That meant changing out a lot of parts on a lot of cars.
"The move we made was no reflection on my relationship with Ford. In fact, they had promised more help than ever before," Gordon said. "But the Car of Tomorrow kind of kicked our butts last season and we needed some help from Ray [Evernham] and his guys to make up that ground, and their marketing and sales people are helping us on some other fronts.
"One thing about the COT is that the transition from one manufacturer to another isn't the total overhaul that it has been in the past. But that doesn't mean it's been easy."
Especially when the manufacturer doesn't adequately explain which parts they've sent from Detroit to put on the cars, which is apparently the root of Gordon's inspection problems at Daytona.
"Dodge sent us the new Charger nose that hadn't yet been approved by NASCAR," the racer said with more than a little irritation. "It was a clerical error, even [Dodge motorsports chief] Bob Nardelli has admitted much. Not only that, but the unapproved nose never even saw the racetrack. We caught [it] in tech inspection and replaced it. The nose we finished eighth with in the Daytona 500 was totally legal. Now everyone, including potential sponsors, has been reading about how my team is a bunch of cheaters. It's totally not fair, especially for a team that everyone knows is fighting for its life, and that's why we've filed an appeal."
Rally for Robby
Throughout his racing career, Gordon has earned the reputation for being outspoken, perhaps even a little too outspoken for the situation. (Remember the time he climbed out of his CART machine and deliberately kicked the Ford logo on the side of his ride?) But this time, even those who have always been quick to tell him to shut up have his back on the 100-point issue. And the post-Daytona West Coast swing has handed Gordon even more support than usual as the dirt people have stepped out of the desert and onto the racetrack by the hundreds, sporting Jim Beam-printed "Rally for Robby" T-shirts at Fontana, with more expected this weekend in Las Vegas. As of Wednesday, nearly 10,000 had signed an online petition at Jim Beam's Web site calling for NASCAR to reduce the penalty.
"Robby's team earned an honest eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500 through tireless dedication, quality and character, not because of rule violations," Jim Beam CEO Thomas Flocco wrote in an open letter to NASCAR president Mike Helton. "As your own officials have stated, there appears to have been no intent to circumvent the rules in order to gain a competitive disadvantage. It amounts to an honest mistake that was corrected before the race. Your decision unfairly penalizes Robby, his sponsors and his fans."
The man himself, perhaps for the first time in his admittedly self-assured life, has been humbled. "A lot of people, even fans of other drivers or people in the sport that I may have made pretty mad at one point or another, have gone out of their way to tell me that they think it's ridiculous. It's really been cool. Let's just hope it makes a difference."
Back to the dirt
So now, still awaiting his final fate with NASCAR and with Dakar, Robby Gordon returns to Las Vegas. It's the place where he first came as a kid to watch his father, Baja Bob, hammer his way through the rocks and sand to win races within sight of The Strip, and the place where he almost stole a giant Cup victory in 2000. ("If the rain had come 10 minutes later, we would have had them.")
He rolls into town with his own team, on his own terms and, most important to him, as his own man. But if you're looking for him this weekend, you'll have to head due north on Las Vegas Boulevard, away from the hotels and the lights, way out past the track or even the Air Force base. Way out where one figures that vehicles shouldn't go, off the paved road, past the burned-out sofa and the empty Red Bull cans. He'll be the guy in the quarter-million-dollar trophy truck, mixing it up with the tricked-out VW Bugs and the four-wheelers. Out with his people, the dirt people, most of whom have traded in their favorite riding wear for a "Rally for Robby" T-shirt.
NASCAR's lone wolf, as it turns out, isn't so alone after all.
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
10dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz